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Automated Hardship – why the government’s flawed tech is failing families and pushing them into poverty

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A report says a flawed algorithm in the UK’s Social Security System could be causing more families to go hungry and pushing even more into poverty every week. What’s going wrong?

A new report by the Human Rights Watch claims the “poorly designed” system, which relies on an automated means-tested computer algorithm to calculate social security benefits to people out of work or on a low income, “threatens the rights of people most at risk of poverty”.

The end of furlough fiasco

While the furlough system has been a lifeline for millions, the group’s report has called on the UK government to implement a comprehensive redesign of the algorithm at a time when up to nine million workers will be at risk of facing redundancy at the end of the furlough scheme in October.  

Universal Credit claimants are entitled to receive payments based on changes to earnings, but the charity’s report claims the data only uses the wages people receive within a calendar month and ignores how frequently people are paid. That is where the algorithm may be going wrong.

In cases where an individual is paid multiple times in one month (as is common among people in irregular or low-paid jobs), the algorithm can overestimate earnings and “drastically” shrink Universal Credit payments.

The five-week wait for his Universal Credit forced Dad of three, Zach L., a sales assistant into debt when the reported flawed calculation caused his payment to drop from £1024 in September 2019 to £471 in October. Photo Source: Samir Muscati for Human Rights Watch

Single parents in distress

“Janet R.,” 35, a single mother who works at a college student advice center in London, suddenly found herself on the verge of financial ruin, said the report.

On January 31, 2020, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the United Kingdom’s ministry for social security, transferred her to a new benefits system known as Universal Credit. In early March, she received her first monthly payment. When she saw that it would only be £388 (US$502), she said she had a panic attack. This was £1000 short of what she needed to cover her rent, pay her bills, and support her two children in one of the most expensive cities in the world.  

“Janet was sure that the DWP had made a mistake,” the report stated. “After she got notice of her first payment on March 2, she immediately rang the Universal Credit helpline and pleaded with an agent to review the payment. But he told her that the system was working exactly the way it was supposed to. That same day, she filed an appeal, but ended up overdrawing on her bank account and borrowing money from friends to cope.

“I am living on whatever I can find in my cupboard at the moment,” said Janet.

Second wave to hit free school meals (again)?

In the rush to close schools in mid-March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown of the nation, the UK’s Department for Education announced that it planned to set up an electronic voucher system so that families of children in England who normally receive free school meals could buy food at selected supermarket chains. But, according to Human Rights Watch, the programme did not start until March 31, almost two weeks later, and is “deeply flawed.”

All available hands should be on deck in government, social welfare departments, schools and charities to be proactive and not reactive to prepare for a second national lockdown so that children in low-income homes and without access to free school meals do not go hungry. Two weeks is too late. If you know of a family that is in need, encourage them if they have access to a mobile phone or internet to use community-based free food apps, such as Olio.

Calling on AI, social care, and recruitment experts

If you have been impacted by this news story and believe that you have a solution – given your background in social care, recruitment, health, education or technology (AI) – to the ‘poorly designed’ system put in place, then make your voice heard and get in touch with our editorial team at editor@freelanceinformer.com

Do you have an idea that could help solve the flawed algorithm or another means to alleviate food poverty or even boost job creation should another lockdown occur closing down schools?
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