Universal Credit (UC) is a social security benefit that is replacing six means-tested benefits and tax credits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance, Housing Benefit, and Child Tax Credit. It has been staggered in its introduction in Wales which started April 2017 in Flintshire and is set to be rolled out across some of the most deprived areas of Wales over the next few months.1
We already know that the scheme has pushed families in Swansea into arrears of £73,000 following the first two months of its roll out. The reduction in the waiting time for UC from 6 to 5 weeks is not enough to save people from being evicted from their homes, resorting to relying on foodbanks and living in debt. Rent arrears is set to more than treble in Wales under the scheme and it is estimated that – when it’s fully up and running – 408,000 households across Wales will be subject to the UC system.2
The Department of Work and Pensions has said UC is making a key difference in encouraging people back to work and argues that the benefit of UC is that people will always be better off when they take on extra work. This is all very well but there is a huge employment gap in Wales and whilst the Welsh Government has made plans to reduce this by getting an additional 7,000 people in the Valleys into work by 2021 inevitably not everyone will be able to find suitable work.
This is a problem because insecure employment in Wales is the highest in the UK with 1 in 30 people currently on zero-hours contracts.3 UC may get some people into work but insecure work has profound consequences for people’s mental health. Job insecurity is as damaging for mental health as unemployment and feeling trapped over long periods, for example by debt or poor employment conditions, nearly trebles the chances of being diagnosed with anxiety and depression.4
Many communities are already suffering significant hardship. Merthyr Valleys Homes has seen foodbank usage double over the past year, with some in the area stating that it’s the worst hardship seen since the miners’ strike. Poverty, and particularly debt, significantly increases the risk of paternal mental health problems and risk of suicide.5
This is important because children who grow up with parents with mental health problems are five times more likely to have mental health problems themselves and low family income is directly linked to emotional difficulties in children. 6,7 Experiencing toxic stress as a child during early development such as that from having a parent who has mental health problems, who has been to prison or having debt and living in poverty, impacts the neural mechanisms by which stress responses are regulated in the brain and the expression of genes related to stress responses.8 Depression and anxiety are 2.5 times more common in 10-15 year olds with low socioeconomic status.9,10
The implementation of UC will push already vulnerable families further into poverty and is only going to compound mental health problems further. This stores up problems and costs for the future as these children grow into adults and along the way may either need to be placed within specialist education provision for behaviour issues, be separated from their parents and put into the looked after children’s system, require specialist mental health services or end up in the criminal justice system.
Fundamentally, the implementation of UC is a breach of the United Nations Children’s Rights Charter, which the UK Government continues to breach by maintaining austerity policies which have led to a forecast rise in child poverty that will rise three times higher than overall poverty by 2021.11
We need to ensure that children’s rights are being upheld and that children are growing up in environments with parents who are supported to enable their children to reach their potential and flourish. This means we need an end to austerity policies. We also need a supportive welfare system, and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma informed mental health and public services.
We need an approach to poverty that supports people out of debt, away from foodbanks and insecure housing, and breaks the cycle of intergenerational mental distress. We support the call by Samaritans Cymru for the Welsh Government to set out a Wales Poverty Strategy to address poverty as the major public health issue that it is.
If we are serious about tackling the rise in children’s mental health problems then we need to acknowledge the root causes of these problems and address growing inequality and poverty.
- World Health Organization. Review of social determinants and the health divide in the WHO European Region: final report. Copenhagen: World Health Organization, 2013.
- Shonkoff JP, Boyce WT, McEwen BS. Neuroscience, molecular biology, and the childhood roots of health disparities: building a new framework for health promotion and disease prevention. JAMA. 2009;301(21):2252-9
- Taylor SE. Mechanisms linking early life stress to adult health outcomes. ProcNatlAcadSciUSA. 2010;107(19):8507-12.
- Lemstra M, Neudorf C, D’Arcy C, Kunst A, Warren LM, Bennett NR. A systematic review of depressed mood and anxiety by SES in youth aged 10-15 years. CanJ Public Health. 2008; 99 (2):125-9.
- Kelly Y, Sacker A, Del BE, Francesconi M, Marmot M. What role for the home learning environment and parenting in reducing the socioeconomic gradient in child development? Findings from the Millennium Cohort Study. ArchDisChild. 2011; 96 (9):832-7.
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