Assessing the impact of benefit sanctions on health

This research aims to assess whether benefit sanctions have unintended impacts on claimant health and use of health services.

Our research

People who claim some working-age benefits such as Universal Credit (UC) have conditions placed on them which they are required to meet in order to receive benefit. With UC, for example, unemployed 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 UC has also 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 if 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. Negative 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 consequences could lead in turn to greater expenditures on public services, off-setting savings from reduced benefit claims.

A recent review of the international evidence on sanctions (shown below in Outputs - Feb.2022) suggests that in addition to some short-term positive outcomes, such as increasing rates of people returning to work, there are also longer-term negative outcomes, such as people moving into lower quality jobs, with lower earnings and stability, and increased risks of entering into non-employment or economic inactivity. Sanctions are also associated with wider adverse outcomes for both claimants and their children, although the reviewed evidence here is thinner and less robust. Outcomes include increased material hardship, such as food deprivation and financial hardship, health problems, and poorer child wellbeing. The review highlights that additional studies based on robust research designs are needed to enhance our understanding of the wider impacts of sanctions for both claimants and their families. 

This research seeks to examine whether benefit sanctions lead to claimants having worse physical or mental health, or making greater use of health services. 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 UC or other 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.
  • Identify the extent to which the imposition of sanctions on 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: benefit claim records in Scotland 2010-2020
  • Unscheduled Care Datamart (including A&E admissions)
  • Prescribing Information System
  • Death records

Research team

Professor Nick Bailey and Serena Pattaro

Publications, Outputs and Media Coverage

For more information about this project, please contact us.

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