Kate Summers is just beginning the fourth year of her PhD in the Social Policy Department. Her research explores how working age benefit recipients think about and use their money.

What is the puzzle in your PhD topic?

Imagine your Grandma gives you a £10 note in your birthday card, do you feel differently about this money compared to, for example, if you found a £10 note on the pavement? If the answer is ‘yes’, there are various things that might explain this, including your relationship with your Grandma being different to the one with the stranger that dropped their money on the floor, or your understanding of how to treat something that is a gift versus something that is a windfall.

I am interested in applying this sort of thinking to understanding how people in receipt of working age social security (‘benefits’) understand and use their money. In this context various factors might be relevant: for example, benefits come with labels attached (‘Jobseekers Allowance’; ‘Child Tax Credit’; ‘Housing Benefit’, etc.), and are delivered at specific time intervals into specific bank accounts. There are also various requirements that people have to meet in order to receive this money, often referred to as ‘conditionality’, and well documented issues of stigma around receiving means-tested benefits. Beyond the design of the benefit system itself there are also factors such as how recipients think of themselves, for example how they think of their role as a parent, or as a worker, or a member of their community, all of which might affect how they think about and use their benefit money.

Why is this important?

My thesis was initially motivated by observing how, on the one hand, social security policy tends to be assessed by policy makers using quite a detached, economistic perspective, where money is understood as something to be thought about purely in terms of quantitative amount, taper rates, incentives and disincentives, and so on. On the other hand popular images of benefit recipients often involve negative assumptions of feckless spending on the ‘wrong’ things (e.g. big flat screen TVs, fast food for their children) which is bound up in cultural and social judgements. I think these two poles are based on some overly simplistic assumptions that are far removed from the experiences of people receiving this money. My aim is to understand how recipients themselves think about and negotiate receiving, organising, and spending their money.

How are you investigating this? 

My thesis uses a qualitative, depth interview approach. This means that for the last two years I have been interviewing recipients of working age benefits, mostly in cafes and in their homes. My fieldwork is based in east London, and I’ve used advice and community centres as points of contact to meet potential interviewees. In the interviews themselves I ask participants to describe the processes of receiving, organising, and spending the money that they receive.

My findings cluster around several themes. These include how recipients experience receiving benefits and related issues of making sense of their entitlement and ownership of this money; how the timings of when payments are received are instrumental to how recipients structure their spending and indeed their daily lives more widely; and how spending money is constrained by not just the limited pecuniary amount of payments but also by various social and moral considerations. I’m afraid many of my results don’t make for very happy reading: generally speaking for many of my participants being a working age benefit claimant involved having the contributions they thought they had made to society undermined, the life they wanted to provide for their children frustrated, and their own financial lives dominated by constraints and shortfalls. As one participant put it, it’s “a shadow way of living”.

If you could force one person to read your thesis cover-to-cover, who would it be?

Although there are many books that I’d recommend to them before my own thesis, my choice would probably be tied between Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne. I would hope that it would give them a more nuanced view of who receives means-tested benefits and what that experience is like for them. I think these two were at the centre of cementing the ‘benefit scrounger’ rhetoric into public and political discourse (although for sure it has existed for many years in many guises). Perhaps this rhetoric was primarily created for political expediency, but even so hopefully reading work like my thesis would make it harder to think that was a bargain worth striking. Please could I also have a time machine to take IDS and Osborne back to 2010 so that they can rethink their plans?!