Casey Armstrong was 14 when she first entered foster care, and 18 when she left and became independent. At 19, she suffered problems with her physical and mental health which left her unable to work. “That’s when I started to experience how bad the Universal Credit system really is,” says Armstrong, now 22 and living in Loughborough, where she studies at college. “It’s a bad system in general, but there are layers upon layers of how it can particularly affect care-experienced people.”
Now, alongside a group of other care-experienced young people and supported by Lloyds Foundation and the Learning and Work Institute, Armstrong is calling for changes to the system so it can better serve young people like her. For the past nine months the group have worked together to identify specific policy asks which they believe would improve experiences of the welfare system and access to education and employment for care-experienced young people. Their six demands range from an increase to Universal Credit to the introduction of care-leaver champions in Job Centres.
“We don’t have a great start in life when we turn 18 and leave care – there’s very limited access to support when it comes to finances,” Armstrong points out. “Universal Credit just doesn’t acknowledge that and actually accentuates those difficulties.”
From just £3 per week
Care-experienced young people aged 19-21 are around three times more likely than their peers to be out of employment, education or training, and the Learning and Work Institute estimates that there are currently around 35,000 care leavers aged 19-24 accessing support from the welfare system. On top of this, research by the Children’s Society in 2017 found that care leavers were three times more likely to be sanctioned than other Universal Credit claimants.
This was the experience of Darren Moore, 19, who also worked to develop the proposals which include aiming to prevent sanctions and providing more clarity to care leavers about the sanction process and the requirements they must meet. Moore’s sanction was ultimately overturned, but he also faced issues when the built-in delay to accessing Universal Credit tipped him into debt. “It was very difficult to receive all eligible support I was entitled to as a care leaver,” he says. “I was on Universal Credit due to my age and care system complications, and I had no income at the time.”
In Armstrong’s case, she was threatened with sanctions multiple times despite providing doctors’ notes proving she was unable to work. When she returned to college two years ago, her work coach gave her incorrect information about her entitlement to Universal Credit, which meant she was almost left with no income when starting her course.