‘Flawed Universal Credit algorithm pushing people to brink of poverty’

The UK’s universal credit system is failing the poorest due to a flawed algorithm which overestimates their earnings and reduces their payments, says a new report from Human Rights Watch.

woman with empty purses


The Government’s Universal Credit system is flawed due to a poorly designed algorithm which is pushing people to the brink of poverty, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

The report, “Automated Hardship: How the Tech-Driven Overhaul of the UK’s Benefits System Worsens Poverty,” calls for a comprehensive redesign of the algorithm which is in charge of deciding how much money to give people.

Universal Credit, which combines six social security benefits into one monthly lump sum, requires most people to apply for and manage the benefit online.

Human Rights Watch says the means-testing algorithm at its heart is supposed to adjust how much people are entitled to each month based on changes in their earnings. But the data the government uses to measure these changes only reflects the wages people receive within one calendar month and ignores how frequently people are paid. If people receive multiple amounts of pay in one month from irregular or low-paid jobs this can cause the algorithm to overestimate earnings and dramatically reduce their payment.

Multiple ways to fix the flawed algorithm have been proposed, including moving to shorter periods of income assessment or using averaged earnings over longer periods to smooth out fluctuations in people’s payments. But the government has not acted.

In June, a UK appeal court ordered the government to rectify the effect the flawed algorithm has on people who receive a regular monthly salary. The Department for Work and Pensions, which is responsible for social security, accepted the ruling but is still figuring out how to carry it out. Human Rights Watch says the ruling does not, however, address the plight of people who are paid weekly, fortnightly, or every four weeks.

The report also points out the ongoing issue of the five-week wait for Universal Credit, which leaves many people in debt. They can get a loan to tide them over, but that means many end up even more in debt as they have to pay it off.  And it says that many people lack digital skills or access to the internet to be able to apply for the benefit or for jobs, a situation which has got worse as a result of cuts, for instance, the closure of libraries.

Human Rights Watch says that, while the government evaluates proposals to fix the algorithm, it should urgently implement measures such as one-off grants to help people during their five-week wait.

“Making sure the benefits system protects people’s rights is ultimately a job for humans, not an algorithm,” said Amos Toh, senior artificial intelligence and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Benefits are designed to help people, not kick them when they’re down. A human-centered approach to benefits automation will ensure the UK government is helping the people who need it most.”

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