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Conditionality and contentment: Universal Credit and UK welfare benefit recipients’ life satisfaction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2022

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Introduced in the United Kingdom in 2012, Universal Credit (UC) is a welfare benefit that replaces six working-age ‘legacy’ benefits for out-of-work and low-income people. Designed with the aim of simplifying benefits and incentivising paid work, UC represents a deepening of conditionality in the British welfare state. Considering these developments, this paper quantitatively investigates the effect of UC on recipients’ life satisfaction. Data from the United Kingdom Household Longitudinal Study is analysed, primarily using a fixed-effects regression approach. Results reveal a significantly negative effect of UC recipience on life satisfaction. Robustness checks and alternative model specifications, including difference-in-differences and inverse probability weighting, confirm this finding. Additionally, mediation models give credence to the idea that UC also negatively affects life satisfaction indirectly by increasing psychological distress. Heterogeneity tests indicate that UC has a less negative effect on single parents’ life satisfaction compared to non-parents. Meanwhile, UC has a significantly more negative effect on the life satisfaction of people not in paid work (for reasons other than unemployment) than those in paid work. Discussion focuses on the potential effect of welfare conditionality specifically, and implications for future research and policy are explored.

© The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

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