Cuts to housing benefit by the UK coalition government have led to a 10 per cent increase in people from low income households reporting poor mental health and helped propel an additional 26,000 people into depression researchers from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), University of Oxford and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine have found.
The paper, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, evaluates the mental health effects of the UK government’s April 2011 reduction in financial support to low-income households renting from the private-sector. Over 179,000 private renters were surveyed, some in receipt of LHA and others not, between 2009 and 2013. LHA changes came into effect on 1 April 2011 and by following these groups over time the researchers were able to document how the cuts had impacted those affected.
Government changes to Local Housing Allowance (LHA), which provides funds for tenants who rent in the private sector, reduced the amount people on low incomes could claim from 50% of the average rate in their local area to 30%, as well as placing a cap on how much an individual could claim per week depending on the number of bedrooms.
Of the 1.5 million people receiving housing benefit in the private rented sector In March 2010, approximately 20% were recorded as experiencing depression. After April 2011, researchers found this figure increased by 10%, meaning that approximately 26,000 additional people receiving housing benefits reported symptoms after the cuts came in.
Areas hit hardest by the LHA cuts, such as inner London, where the level of support was reduced by as much as 50%, and Tyne and Wear, were found to be those hit hardest by a rise in mental health issues. Furthermore, the rise in mental ill health was not a short-term shock, but the increase in depressive symptoms being reported remained for up to 24 months after the reform.
Aaron Reeves (pictured left), Associate Professorial Research Fellow in Poverty and Inequality at LSE’s International Inequality Institute and lead author of the report, said: “Housing provides shelter and security, protecting health and well-being. But when that security becomes uncertain, health, and mental health in particular, is undermined.
The government’s reduction in housing benefit in April 2011 created uncertainty in the lives of some low-income by making their housing less affordable. This reduction in financial support increased the risk of depressive symptoms among those claiming housing benefit over and above other people in the private rented sector.”
Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “At a time when the NHS, and the mental health service in particular, is facing unprecedented pressure, and when NHS leaders are highlighting the need to reduce preventable illness, it is incredible that other government policies are adding to that pressure”.
There are three key issues that must be considered by policy makers when considering future changes to housing support, the researchers argue.
First, the findings highlight the health effects of welfare reform on economically vulnerable groups, showing that policies that increase precariousness and expose individuals to greater insecurity and potential homelessness can lead to an increase in mental health problems being experienced.
Second, these reforms potentially counteract policy initiatives in other areas that are seeking to reduce reliance on disability benefits by reducing the generosity of incapacity benefit. In future, policymakers should attend more carefully to the spill-over effects of policy interventions that are implemented simultaneously.
Third, as part of the July 2015 budget the Conservative government has outlined plans to remove eligibility for housing benefit from those aged 18-21. Our results suggest this policy change will increase the risk of depressive symptoms among this group even further, potentially harming their chances in the labour market and having a long term scarring effect on their mental health.
‘Reductions in housing benefit increases symptoms of depression in low-income UK households’: by Aaron Reeves, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Amy Clair, University of Oxford, Martin McKee, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and David Stuckler, University of Oxford and LSHTM.
 179,064 private renters were surveyed, some in receipt of LHA and some not receiving state support, across genders and between the ages of 16-69 from April 2009 to March 2013.
Housing benefit costs the UK £24bn every year. In April 2011 the Coalition Government reduced the local housing allowance by £1,6bn, cutting the allowances people could receive in housing benefit if renting in the private sector from 50% of the median rent in the area to 30% of the median local market rent. The reform also introduced caps on what could be claimed: £250 per week for one bedroom; £290 per week for two; £340 for three; and £400 for four or more bedrooms. These policies were applied to both new and existing LHA claimants, from the anniversary of their claim.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that the average loss of income for recipients was £1,220 per year, affecting about 1.35 million individuals and potentially tipping 27,000-54,000 children into severe poverty.
Source: London School of Economics and Political Science