Widows and Carers should be recognized

Govt bereavement research fails to consider older people because social security is no longer social

The government is going through a consultation about bereavement benefits at the moment (you have to reply by the 5th March): here is the document on the web: Government consultation on bereavement benefit.

They have also published some research which, from the point of greying people, is a bit disappointing. The crucial cut-off date is age 45, because the state bereavement allowance is only paid for a year if you are bereaved from that age up to state pension age (unless you have children when you are bereaved, in which case you you get an extra allowance while you are getting child benefit for them).

The research can be downloaded from here: DWP bereavement research site
and the pdf here: Qualitative study of the effects of bereavement benefits
and a more detailed summary and comment on my Social Care/Palliative Care blog: Blog post on bereavement benefit research

All of this is being done by the Department of Work and Pensions, the fiefdom of Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith, although obviously bereavement is so unimportant it’s actually being handled by their House of Lords Minister, Lord Freud. I’m not a fan of the way the DWP is organised, because its main focus is on reducing the financial cost of social security, rather than examining the state’s social responsibility for our citizens. At least when it was the Department of Health and Social Security, it was tied up with a secretary of state who had responsibility for social and health care, and who therefore had to look at the broader social and health consequences of of what it was doing with social security. The current DWP is mainly concerned with social security in relation to work.

The consequence of this limited perspective is in general that older people are seen as an expense because they don’t work (and therefore don’t pay taxes and cost the state money) and, in this instance, you can see it in the atttitude to beeravement benefits, which are mainly about helping young people to cope with the practical consequences of a sudden reduction in income and increase in expenses. This research, unnecessarily it seems to me, spends some time looking at whether bereavement benefits are a disincentive to work (and finds that they are not), whether they are too much (no, although useful in coping with the financial consequences of bereavement, they’re too little) and how you can help people make a transition to work.

The researchers find, for example, that the emotional consequences of a bereavement are sometimes a factor in being able to manage on a suddenly depleted income and that inflexible employers make it more difficult for people to stay at work if they’re caring for a dying partner or coping with bereavement. Moreover, the short-term contract culture, in which the economy tries to make as many employees as possible temporary, makes it much more dificult for people to stay in work and cope with bereavement and to get back to work when they are bereaved.

So, here is a little bit of information that inflexible and cheapskate employment arrangements are adding to the distress of bereavement and making it more difficult for people to care for sick partners and cope with their bereavement. Are there any suggestions for dealing with (or researching further into) these broader social issues? No, because the DWP doesn’t have broad social concerns, its job is only to explore (and under the present government in its present economic situation if possible reduce) benefits payments.

And because it is thinking about those benefits only in relation ot people of working age, it is not looking at the possibility that older bereaved people, retired and without children, might also need financial help to deal with some of the emotional and practical consequences of bereavement. In passing, the researchers note people appreciated it when the state gives them a regular payment to help them through a difficult patch in their lives. They also note that some people resented the fact that the benefits are short-term and related to bereavement and child care: they do not provide official recognition of the important social role of being widowed, as the old widows pension used to.

This is a good example of how the state recognising and helping with the troubled times in people’s lives is a possibly intangible but very worthwhile role of government  action. Social security is not only about bits of money, important though that is when you’re on the edge financially, but it is social: it shows in a very clear way that the people around you recognise and maintain their solidarity and connection with us in our shared social life and experience. I can’t help feeling that politicians,civil servants and economists recognising that support and conection with citizens is a very important function of government might make them all a bit more popular and well-thought-of.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available