REPORT: Disability & Poverty in Later Life

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (an independent organisation working to inspire social change through research, policy and practice) have published a new report that explores the relationship between disability and poverty among the older population. It emphasises the additional living costs that disabled people face, and the importance of taking disability costs into account when making poverty assessments in the older population.

The report considers alternative directions of reform for the system of public support
for older people with disabilities and casts doubt on some of the suggestions that have been made for improving the targeting of public support for older disabled people.

Download Full Report (PDF file)

Summary of the report’s main conclusions

There are six main conclusions.

1. Disability brings with it additional living costs, which can be very large – sometimes hundreds of pounds a week. People with disabilities often receive government support in the form of
disability benefit, designed to meet part of those additional costs. If we include disability benefit in income but fail to make any allowance for the higher living costs that disability brings, then
disabled people appear to be better off than they actually are. In the policy debate, we often see comparisons between the incomes of disabled and non-disabled people, or of the younger and older population (the latter have higher rates of disability). These comparisons are often made without any allowance for differences in living costs and are misleading because they make older disabled people seem better off relative to the rest of the population than they really are.

2. Britain currently has a dual system of public support for older disabled people. Central
government pays disability benefits (mainly attendance allowance and Disability Living
allowance), while local authorities manage the provision of social care services. The two systems
are quite separate and have little overlap, and it is sometimes suggested that they should be
merged into a single system of disability support. while this sounds neater and may save some
administrative costs, it runs the risk that many more people may miss out on government
support completely. We think it is too big a risk to take with such a vulnerable group.

3. The present system of social care/disability benefit is quite good at using limited resources to
minimise the number of older disabled people in poverty. But it is much less effective in
protecting people from very deep poverty. The people most affected by this are those with
severe disability (and therefore high disability costs), especially those who are unaware of, or not able to negotiate, the systems for claiming help with their care needs.

4. There are failures in the targeting of the current system – the system misses some people in
great need and it spends some public money on people with only moderate needs. But, in
practice, no system of social support can avoid all such errors. Our findings suggest that the
failure to meet severe need is a much bigger source of targeting error in the current system
than is the spending of resources on the wrong people.

5. There is scope for improving the performance of the system of public support for older people with disabilities, by spending the current budget for disability benefit in a more effective way. Although introducing means-testing for attendance allowance or Disability Living allowance is often suggested, it is possible to achieve similar improvements in poverty outcomes in a fully means-tested or a fully non-means-tested version of the disability benefit system. The reason for this is that people with low incomes are more likely to be affected by severe disability, and also have a stronger need for support and are therefore more likely to claim support.

6. Much more important than means-testing is the ability of the system to provide support to
people living with severe disabilities and facing very high disability costs. Effective reforms of the disability benefit system could achieve major reductions in the burden of deep poverty by doing two things:
• adapting the amounts of benefit paid to claimants of attendance allowance or Disability Living allowance to match the costs of disability more closely;
• increasing the reach of the system, particularly among the most disabled, by increasing take-up of entitlements and/or improving the quality of initial adjudication of claims.

A reform that achieved these objectives while staying inside the current level of spending on disability benefit would require a reduction in the average amounts paid to people with less severe disability, to pay for the increased levels of support for the most severely disabled, although it could also accommodate small amounts of support to an increased proportion of those with modest disability levels. This seems a reasonable possibility to examine.

Download Full Report (PDF file)