Some women claiming welfare benefits are finding that the system compromises their financial autonomy.
If a woman claims benefits, and lives with a partner who also claims benefits, then the system requires them to make a joint claim. Because this is a new claim, she is moved onto Universal Credit. Both her and her partner have individual ‘claimant commitments’, and if her partner doesn’t fulfil his or her ‘claimant commitment’ correctly then the partner will be sanctioned. But because this is a joint claim, she will also lose money, up to half of their joint income.
The woman is financially punished despite fulfilling her own, individual ‘claimant commitment’. So the woman loses her right to financial autonomy solely because both she and her partner rely on benefits.
One woman told me how this rule is affecting her. Because of past life events, including homelessness and drug addiction, the only way she feels safe to have a relationship is to remain financially independent. She needs to be confident that her partner’s behaviour will never adversely affect her and prevent her meeting her basic needs for shelter, safety, food and a regular weekly income.
Her partner is also a benefit claimant. She can not live with him on the DWP’s terms. She can only break up with her partner or live with him and lie to the DWP. If caught living with her partner, in a relationship with the person she loves while maintaining her financial autonomy, she will be prosecuted and may be jailed.
A woman in this situation can ask the DWP to make ‘split payments’ so that the payment is divided in half and given to each partner, but this is not automatically granted: she will only get this if she can convince her work coach or case manager that she has a good reason for it.
The government would not force a woman in paid employment to share a joint bank account with her partner. And yet women poor enough to rely on DWP benefits lose their financial autonomy when they move in with their DWP claimant partner.
Universal Credit seems to be designed to replicate 1950s marriages for all couples applying, whether they want that or not. And it can take a woman who has suffered great trauma and made huge efforts to get her life together, and push her right back into dependency and stress.
Financial independence has always been a core demand for women’s rights activists, for very good reason. When a woman is dependant on a partner, she is devalued as an individual human being and made vulnerable to abuse.
Universal Credit has impoverished many women. Through this particular rule, it has also compromised women’s financial independence.