Half of all people in poverty are either disabled or live with someone who is disabled, according new analysis published by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) and Scope. 

The SMF, a cross-party think-tank, worked with the disability equality charity Scope on the report, which finds that increasingly costly government support has failed to prevent disabled people and their families from falling into poverty.

The report 'Time to think again' found that more than four in 10 people (42%) living in families that rely on disability benefits are in poverty and there are 1.8 million more people in poverty who live in a family that includes a disabled person than 15 years ago.

It also found that the disability employment gap remains above 40 percentage points for many disabled people, including those whose primary condition is a mental health condition or learning difficulty.

Current system of support for disabled people is “broken”

The think-tank said the findings showed that the current system of support for disabled people is “broken” and repeated changes in disability policy have failed to provide either sufficient financial security for disabled people or help for those that can and want to work. 

The report has sparked calls for urgent action over the immediate impact of the pandemic, with recent Scope research showing more than a quarter (28%) of disabled people said their finances have worsened during the pandemic. 

Other findings include:

  • The number of people on a range of disability benefits is broadly the same or higher (depending on the benefit) than it was two decades ago.
  • 92% of the public think the welfare system should ensure disabled people who are unable to work are not in poverty.
  • The real-terms costs of disability benefits rose by £16 billion (48%) between 2000 to 2001 and 2018 to 2019. These costs are forecasted to rise by another £4 billion up to 2024 to 2025.
  • Reforms could boost the UK the Gross Value Added output by £50 billion a year and lead to Exchequer benefits of around £17 billion a year.

Too many disabled people are being failed by our welfare system

Focus group participants interviewed as part of the research said the benefits system was “insulting” and lacked “kindness and humanity”.

James Taylor, Executive Director of Strategy, Impact and Social Change at disability equality charity Scope, said: “Too many disabled people are in poverty and are being failed by our welfare system. The constant stress, uncertainty and distress it causes are symptoms of having to battle a system that should be there to support a decent standard of living, rather than one that penalises and treats disabled people unfairly.

“In the short term, we need urgent changes to make sure disabled people are getting the support they need. But the Government has a momentous opportunity with its forthcoming welfare green paper to set out a longer-term vision for how the welfare system can improve disabled people’s lives. If it simply tinkers at the edges, we will judge it to have failed."

The report calls on the Government to urgently bring forward its Green Paper and cross-departmental national disability strategy with “reasonable expectations” of when and how reforms will be delivered. Disabled people’s views and experience must be at the heart of Government's plans, underpinning future system reform. The report sets out a framework for reform which would better support disabled people into employment and ensure those that do need to rely on benefits can do so in a way which “delivers dignity, fairness and respect”.

Reforms could also aid the Government’s levelling-up agenda – with the most deprived areas likely to benefit the most from changes to the system - and boost UK output (GVA) by around £50 billion per year.

Matthew Oakley, Senior Researcher at the Social Market Foundation, said:
“The benefits system for disabled people is broken. It is simply unacceptable that more than four in ten people (42%) living in families that rely on disability benefits are forced to live in poverty.

“Successive governments have repeatedly failed disabled people, their families and communities for decades. The pandemic has underlined this failure and had a tragic impact on disabled people’s lives. Now is the time to think again.

“Not only is failing policy damaging the lives of disabled people - it also means that the UK is missing out on everything that disabled people can bring to the economy and society. Reforms have wasted billions of pounds of taxpayer money and failure to support more disabled people to fulfil their working ambitions has deprived the economy of as much as £50 billion of output every year."