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The Home Secretary of the United Kingdom Suella Braverman recently claimed that there is a "stubborn core of our population that sees welfare as the go-to option [and] is not motivated... to get out and work" as well as there being "far too many people" who are able to work but don't.

BBC News reported:

16:31
Braverman: Benefits system 'needs more stick'

There's more from Suella Braverman on benefits, the hot topic on Day Three of the Tory party conference.

The home secretary claimed there is a "stubborn core of our population that sees welfare as the go-to option [and] is not motivated... to get out and work", adding that the system needed to add "a bit more stick" to make sure it paid for people to get themselves into work.

Speaking at the conference, Braverman told The Telegraph's Christopher Hope there are "far too many people" who are able to work but don't. Instead, she said, "they choose to top up their salaries with tax credits or whatever".

Is there published data on the number of people who claim benefits when they could be supporting themselves via work instead?

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  • That source link is hideously broken. Oct 4, 2022 at 17:14
  • @Shadur I've cleaned up the link URL and added the time stamp - the page contains several stories. There seems to be several versions of the page: another is stamped 17:31 and carries a photo. Oct 4, 2022 at 17:19
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    Do NOT use the comments to post your political views or half-cocked answers.
    – Oddthinking
    Oct 5, 2022 at 0:34
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    Some Google searching suggests that there is no consensus among economists nor convincing study on this assertion one way or the other. I’ll be very interested to see if there is a solid answer available. Oct 5, 2022 at 3:19

2 Answers 2

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The Office For National Statistics disagrees.

The Office For National Statistics in Employment in the UK: September 2022 has this to say about economic inactivity...

  • Until COVID-19 the rate of "economic inactivity" had been falling.
  • The main drivers of economic inactivity are students or long-term sick.
  • "Discouraged workers" are 0.2% of inactive people.
  • The number of payroll employees is now well above pre-pandemic levels.
  • The majority of inactive people are 50 to 64 years old.

That last one just to stay any griping about "kids these days".

Nowhere do they state that a "stubborn core of our population that sees welfare as the go-to option" is driving inactivity.

What is Economic Inactivity?

The claim is about people who are economically inactive who could be active. In "A guide to labour market statistics", the Office For National Statistics defines "economic inactivity" as...

The number of economically inactive people in the UK is measured by the Labour Force Survey (LFS) and consists of people aged 16 and over without a job who have not sought work in the last four weeks and/or are not available to start work in the next two weeks. The main economically inactive groups are students, people looking after family and home, long-term sick and disabled, temporarily sick and disabled, retired people and discouraged workers.

The inactivity rate is 21.7%, which seems high, but most are not eligible for work. We can rule out students (learning is their job), caregivers (they have a job), disabled (I don't want to get into the possibility of false claims), and retired people (they're done working).

How many people are inactive and why?

According to INAC01 SA: Economic inactivity by reason (seasonally adjusted), 9,011,000 people were inactive as of June 2022.

  • 27.3% long-term sick
  • 26.6% students
  • 19.1% looking after family/home
  • 13.3% retired
  • 11.2% "other"
  • 2.2% temporarily sick
  • 0.2% "discouraged workers"

Other is "Other reasons include people who (i) are waiting the results of a job application, (ii) have not yet started looking for work, (iii) do not need or want employment, (iv) have given an uncategorised reason for being economically inactive, or (v) have not given a reason for being economically inactive."

One could argue that "other" should be included in the claim, if so that's an absolute maximum of 1 million people. That is compared to 29.7 million employees.

There are far fewer Discouraged Workers now.

Discouraged workers are those who are not looking for work because they believe no jobs are available.

The only group in that list of "economically inactive people" who might fall under the claim is "discouraged workers" at just 18,000 people making up 0.2% of the inactive population. This is the lowest it has been in decades.

In contrast, in the past three decades, "discouraged workers" have been as high as 170,000 and made up as much as 2% of the inactive population.

There are far fewer discouraged workers in the UK now, by percent and in absolute numbers, than there have been historically.

COVID-19 is the main cause of economic inactivity

The Office For National Statistics in Employment in the UK: September 2022 has this to say about the reasons for "economic inactivity"...

Since comparable records began in 1971, the economic inactivity rate had generally been falling; however, it has increased during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

One could argue that these people should get back to work, but it also flips the claim on its head. Rather than being not being motivated to work, the labour and safety issues raised by COVID-19 have demotivated them from returning to the workplace. This suggests less "stick" (ie. reducing benefits) and more carrot (ie. better safety and assurances for labour).

The current increase is due to students or long-term sick people.

The increase in economic inactivity during the latest three-month period was driven by those inactive because they are students or long-term sick

One could extend the claim to "people who left the job market to become students", but they're students presumably so they can "get out and work" a better job.

A significant portion of inactive people want a job.

Of the inactive population, 20% want a job. That includes...

  • 72% of discouraged workers
  • 50% of the temporarily sick
  • 30% of "other"
  • 23% of the long term sick
  • 21% of looking after family/home
  • 15% of students

Another view: benefits numbers.

(Before I found the Labor Statistics, I also did a bunch of work looking into various people on various benefits to get a feel for how many people we might be talking about. I think the labor statistics are more definitive, but I'll leave this in the answer as it's useful to know who is getting paid what benefit.)

Suella Braverman is the current UK Home Secretary for the Conservative Party. Conservatives have been split over their Sept 2022 Budget Proposal which proposed to slash taxes. They need some way to pay for this tax cut, so why not use the old saw of shaming people on benefits? Their plan included getting 120,000 more people on Universal Credit to look for more work or face benefit sanctions. This is likely the "stick" referred to in the claim.

How many people could they potentially prod back into the workforce with this stick?

tl;dr At most, 1.7 million people on Universal Credit, and 1.1 million on Housing Benefit could fall under this claim. Assuming no overlap, that's 2.8 million people.

The UK Department for Works and Pensions says the number of claimants by category as of Feb 2022 are...

Scotland has their own versions of some of these programs.

They also note that...

22 million people claimed some combination of DWP benefits in February 2022 (of the benefits included in these statistics), of whom 30% claimed more than one benefit.

As well as COVID continuing to have an affect...

Figures for this release reflect the disruptions caused by the coronavirus (COVID 19) pandemic, which has led to some temporary variations in operational procedures. Such changes were necessary to maintain service.

We'll need to break these numbers down to determine who might fit into the claim's "stubborn core of our population".

Who can we rule out?

Pensioners

I think we can safely rule out benefits tied to State Pensions: they did their time. This includes State Pension, and Pension Credit.

People on Disability

Unless the claim is people are faking it, we can rule out people on disability. There are a number of benefits related to disability including Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Attendance Allowance, and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

Note that PIP and ESA can go to people who are employed.

Carer's Allowance covers people who are caring for someone on disability for 35 hours a week. It pays £‎69.70 a week, or the princely sum of £‎2/hour. The National Living Wage is £‎9.50.

People looking for a job

Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) is for people seeking work, so they're ruled out.

People who are employed

It's often overlooked that people with jobs also get benefits, either because their job pays too little, or there's some circumstance why they cannot work more hours or get a better job (partial disability, or caregiver, for example).

Students

Their job is to learn, presumably so they can get a better job.

What's left?

  • Universal Credit
  • Housing Benefit
  • Income Support

These can be further filtered to remove people in the other categories we ruled out: pensioners, disabled, employed people, people looking for work, and students.

Universal Credit

Universal Credit is replacing a number of programs including Housing Benefit and Income Support as well as Child Tax Credit, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), and the Working Tax Credit. You can apply if you're working or not.

One of the requirements to be eligible for Universal Credit is to "have £16,000 or less in money, savings and investments" and you get less if "you have more than £6,000 in money, savings and investments".

The standard allowance is between £‎265.31 and £‎525.72 a month, depending on your age and household. More money can be had for children, disabilities, and housing costs.

Point is, nobody's getting rich off this.

Of the 5.6 million people claiming Universal Credit, we can break them down using Table 1 - Conditionality from DWP's Stat-Xplore.

  • 1.4 million are searching for work.
  • 2.2 million are working
  • 110,000 are planning for work
  • 306,000 are preparing for work

That leaves us with 1.7 million people on Universal Credit who are not working nor looking for work nor about to work.

Housing Benefit

The Housing Benefit is being rolled into Universal Credit. DWP breaks down people receiving the Housing Benefit...

  • Standard case (including PC Savings Credit only) 819,000
  • In receipt of Employment and Support Allowance (Income-Related) 804,000
  • In receipt of Income Support 145,000
  • In receipt of Universal Credit 124,000
  • In receipt of Jobseeker’s Allowance (Income-Based) 37,000
  • In receipt of Pension Credit (Guaranteed Credit) 655,000
  • Unknown or missing passported benefit 1,400

After we filter this to only the standard, income support, and universal credit claimants, we get about 1.1 million. Note that standard includes pensioners, so this number is a little high.

Income Support

Income Support is being replaced by Universal Credit.

Lone parents represent 50% of the people remaining on IS, and carers represent 49%.

Unless the claim is that single parents and caregivers should also get a job, we can rule out the people remaining on Income Support.

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Frame challenge: this is not an answerable question as posed because it is unclear what she means by 'could work'.

If one defines 'could work' as 'everyone who receives unemployment benefits' one can objectively count how many people there are. People who have for example a medical reason that makes them unable to work usually do not get unemployment benefits but rather some other kind of government support.

If you define 'could work' as 'would be financially significantly better off with a job they actually could get' then everything depends on how you define the latter and you can get any numbers you want depending on how you interpret the statement.

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    "If one defines 'could work' as 'everyone who receives unemployment benefits' one can objectively count how many people there are." - but one can get unemployment benefits while in employment.
    – Lag
    Oct 5, 2022 at 8:04
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    @Lag I have to admit I don't know the details of the various benefits in the UK but I was hoping one can distinguish on a government level between people who receive unemployment benefits meant to pay for their entire cost of living from people who receive some kind of government top up of their salary from legal employment.
    – quarague
    Oct 5, 2022 at 8:29
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    I feel this would be better suited as a comment then an answer, as it doesn't do much to actually answer the question. At the very least you could cite how many people are receiving unemployment benefits and demonstrate what percentage of the potential workforce that may represent as a worst case scenario for what percentage 'could work'. I'd also argue your last paragraph is unfair, there doesn't need to be 'substantially better off' to be able to work, the whole point of the argument was people preferring easy money to work. The question is what percentage capable of working can get jobs.
    – dsollen
    Oct 5, 2022 at 14:31
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    In practice many people who are unable to work for very real reasons are denied medical exemptions. E.g. a friend has ME. 3 weeks out of every month she would be able to do light office work. The 4th week she has to spend in bed. She is counted as "fit for work". Oct 5, 2022 at 16:54
  • @dsollen If you think my first option is a reasonable answer to the question feel free to write that up as an answer with numbers. I don't think these numbers have any meaningful relation to the question asked so I didn't put them there. My answer is a frame challenge. I believe the question as asked does not have a reasonable numeric answer.
    – quarague
    Oct 5, 2022 at 17:53

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