ESA does not permit independent living for disabled people in the UK

An adequate income is the foundation upon which all independent living is based. Current rates of ESA and its equivalent under Universal Credit are not adequate in terms of coverage (who is entitled to ESA),amount or duration to ensure independent living for disabled people in the UK.

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, housing needs are met by housing benefit and all the other essential needs are met by ESA. ESA is not adequate to cover all the essential needs contained in Maslow’s lowest tier. However much social care someone receives, they will never be independent if they are so poor that they cannot afford food or fuel for heating.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Minimum Income Standard measure, the income required to achieve an adequate standard of living – for a healthy, able-bodied person is £184.66 per week for a single person, excluding rent, mortgage or the proportion of Council Tax covered by Council Tax Support. A basic living income can be estimated by removing from the budget those costs that are associated with social participation, clothing and household repairs; this comes to £114.25. Jobseeker’s Allowance, SSP, ESA WRAG and ESA SG are all  inadequate even for short-term subsistence living, let alone for an adequate standard of living. This means that people who are unable to work because of chronic disabling illness or disability are forced, by the political choices of the country, to live in destitution.

Sickness benefit Amount Shortfall in short-term Shortfall in long-term Shortfall for adequate living
SSP £88.45 £25.80 £45.21 £96.21
ESA assessment phase £73.10 £41.15 £60.56 £111.56
JSA £73.10 £41.15 £92.51 £111.56
ESA WRAG £102.15 £12.10 £31.51 £82.51
ESA SG £109.30 £4.95 £24.36 £75.36


But this is not all. The government of the last six years has ensured that:

  • Benefit levels have been frozen benefits at 2016 levels for four years, so that as food, utilities and ticket prices rise benefits become even more inadequate;
  • Housing benefit no longer covers the cost of rent, so tenants have to make up the rest from their ESA, live in housing that is so damp or cold as to damage health, or rent from rogue landlords;
  • The assessment for ESA has been designed in a way that is incapable of assessing chronic illness. It cannot account for the significant disabling effect of having some difficulty with all activities, as opposed to specific, discrete incapacity such as the effect of sight loss on reading. Consequently, many people who are too ill to work are assessed as fit for work.
  • People on JSA or ESA WRAG have to take part in activity in order to retain their benefit. Research on WRAG confirms that this activity is largely irrelevant and detrimental to their health.
  • People with chronic disabling illness typically have extra costs, such as needing help with personal care or household chores, or for additional utility bills. Extra-costs benefits do not cover households chores other than basic cooking, nor more expensive items. The assessment is unable to assess the extra costs of chronic illness, so people struggle to get the benefits they need even for the costs that are assessed.
  • ESA become means-tested after certain time limits. People who do not have enough National Insurance credits in the previous two years are dependent upon means-tested payment, and ESA WRAG claimants after twelve months. After this, people can’t receive benefits if their partner has too much income (£5-10k/yr) or savings.
  • ESA recipients are regularly reassessed, usually at intervals of under two years. Because of the strictnrss and inconsistency of the assessment, individuals can lose their benefit without any improvement in health – and even with a deterioration – and then have to go through a lengthy appeal process to reinstate their benefit. In this time, increased poverty and stress lead to worsened health and indebtedness.

All of this means that sickness benefits are not adequate in:

  • Coverage (many people unfit for work are told that they are fit for work, or made to carry out prescribed activity to retain their benefit);
  • Amount – ESA does not cover the cost of an acceptable living standard, including social participation for people who would otherwise be permanently locked out of society. Housing benefit does not cover the cost of housing, and extra-cost benefits do not cover the extra costs incurred by chronically ill people;
  • Duration – benefits are means-tested, and repeatedly re-assessed. They do not last as long as the chronic illness, and are not stable.

Stef Benstead and Caroline Richardson.


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