Assessing the impact of benefit sanctions on health

People who claim some benefits, such as Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) have conditions placed on them which they are required to meet in order to receive benefit. With JSA, for example, claimants must sign on at the Jobcentre Plus office regularly and show that they have taken certain steps to find work. If they fail to meet these conditions, they can be sanctioned, i.e. their benefits are stopped for a period. There have always been conditions on unemployment benefits but they have increased in recent years, with the number of sanctions and maximum length rising. The introduction of Universal Credit has seen conditions extended to those in work as well.

Sanctions are meant to encourage people to return to work as soon as they can. This can be good for public finances as it keeps claims down, good for the economy as it keeps labour supply up and, arguably at least, good for claimants since unemployment tends to be bad for our health. However, critics argue that sanctions may have unintended side-effects: harming claimant health, increasing risks of homelessness, or putting stress on families which can harm children. Health effects may arise from having less money to spend on food or heating, but also from the psychological stresses of trying to cope without income. These unintended impacts could lead in turn to greater expenditure on public services, off-setting savings from reduced benefit claims.

This research seeks to examine whether benefit sanctions lead to claimants having worse physical or mental health, or making greater use of health services in Scotland. It also seeks to add to our knowledge on whether sanctions encourage claimants to return to employment more quickly. It will be innovative in using a database of individuals' benefits, employment and health histories constructed from administrative records for the Scottish population which have not previously been linked.

Specifically, the research will aim to:

  • Identify the extent to which imposition of sanctions on Job Seeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance claimants tends to lead to worse health outcomes or greater use of health services.
  • Identify variations between groups in health impacts of sanctions, for example, by age, gender, disability, pre-existing health condition or labour market area, as well as welfare benefit category (JSA or ESA).
  • Identify the extent to which the imposition of sanctions on JSA and ESA claimants leads to greater movement off benefits or better employment outcomes.
  • Identify whether any health impacts of sanctions are moderated by employment outcomes.
  • Make clear recommendations for policy reform on the basis of this evidence and contribute to broader debates about the nature of conditionality in the welfare system.

Data this research aims to link and analyse

  • Department for Work and Pensions: JSA and ESA WRAG claim records in Scotland 2010-2018
  • Unscheduled Care Datamart (including A&E admissions)
  • Prescribing Information System
  • Death records

Project leads

Professor Nick Bailey and Dr Serena Pattaro, University of Glasgow, Scottish Centre for Administrative Data Research.

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