Photo credit: Knox O (Wasi Daniju) via photopin cc

Changes to the sickness and disability benefit Employment and Support Allowance, which come into force from 3 April, mean that up to half a million people will be awarded lower benefit payments than they would have otherwise received under the current system.

From Monday, all new claimants placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) of ESA, who are assessed as being capable of some sort of work-related-activity, will receive just £73.10 a week – the same as jobseekers’ allowance (JSA) claimants – rather than £102.15 a week paid to current claimants.

An analysis of the new rules by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows that around 60,000 people with be affected in the first year, but all claims will ultimately be assessed under the new system. In the long-run, this means that around 500,000 claimants will receive £1,400 a year less on average, if they choose not to claim any other state benefits.

Around half of ESA claimants are in receipt of the benefit because of mental or behavioural disorders, and tend to be older than unemployed people on JSA. About half are between 50 and the state pension age.

They also tend to be in receipt of benefit longer than JSA claimants. Four in five ESA WRAG claimants have been claiming for over two years, compared to less than one in five for JSA.

The IFS predicts that those affected by the changes could respond in a number of different ways.

Given that the new rate of ESA WRAG will effectively be the same as JSA, some people may choose not to put themselves through the stressful ESA assessment and claim JSA instead. Those who choose this option, however, would find themselves subject to tough requirements in order to continue receiving benefit.

Others may try to appeal against decisions to place them in the WRAG in a desperate bid to get into the ESA Support Group, which will not be affected by the changes, and receive higher payments as a result. Currently, around 20 per cent of people placed in the ESA WRAG challenge the decision.

Some may choose not to claim either ESA or JSA and claim other benefits like Personal Independence Payments (PIP) to replace some of the lost income. If they successfully claim PIP, they could then be automatically ‘passported’ to higher ESA entitlements – great advice for anyone looking to find a way around the new ESA rules.

Some may move into work, but seeing as the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has already accepted these people have ‘limited capability for work’ this could prove to be a difficult task, if not impossible. A DWP survey found that only 30 per cent of current WRAG claimants are actively looking for work.

Many more, perhaps the majority, will forego all these options – ‘choosing’ poverty over the unenviable task of navigating an increasingly traumatic welfare system, that seems hellbent on denying vulnerable people the support they need, or moving into work when they are unable to do so – and accept the £1,400 a year hit to their income.

In short, these changes risk pushing those with the greatest barriers to employment even further away from the world of work… and into poverty.