Universal Credit could silence working class writers

31 October 2018

The Society of Authors has warned that reforms to the benefits system could silence working class writers and other diverse voices.

Speaking at the All Party Parliamentary Writers Group inquiry into authors’ earnings on Tuesday 30 October, SoA Chief Executive Nicola Solomon told MPs that Universal Credit would cause a further fall in authors’ incomes, and may force some to give up writing all together.

Under the old system, which is now being phased out and replaced by Universal Credit, some authors with low earnings could claim Tax Credits to supplement their income. This enabled them to dedicate more time to their writing, ensuring that they could continue to write as a profession.

But the introduction of Universal Credit means that the self-employed must meet the “Minimum Income Floor” to receive benefits. This is equivalent to the National Living Wage for most working-age people. Given the median annual income of a professional author is £10,500, which is well below the National Living Wage, many authors will lose their entitlement to benefits under Universal Credit.

Furthermore, a self-employed worker’s entitlement to Universal Credit is assessed monthly. This will make it even harder for professional writers to reach the Minimum Income Floor and claim Universal Credit, as authors’ incomes are not stable and tend to fluctuate from month to month.  

Why does this matter?

It can take years for authors to establish themselves. Many writers who are well-known to us today toiled away in obscurity before their breakthrough work was published, often claiming benefits to support their work during this period.

Anna Burns, winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize, relied on the benefits system while writing her prize-winning novel Milkman. In the acknowledgements to the book, she thanked her local food bank, various charities, the SoA, and the Department for Work and Pensions for the support they had given her.

But changes to the benefits system risk driving working-class writers like Anna Burns out of the industry. If these authors are no longer able to top up modest incomes from writing with benefits, they may be forced to give up writing altogether.  

This is bad news for publishers and readers as well as authors. It will lead to a reduction in the diversity of published works, and the opportunity to attract new readers will be lost.

Nicola Solomon, Chief Executive of the Society of Authors, said:

“From JK Rowling to Anna Burns, many authors have depended on the benefits system to support their writing. But the design of Universal Credit fails to recognise the realities of work for authors or other self-employed workers in the cultural sector.

“Universal Credit risks driving writers from working-class backgrounds and other under-represented voices out of the profession. This would have a shocking impact on the diversity of stories being told.

“If writing is seen as a privilege then only the privileged will be able to write. This gives us an incredibly narrow group of people who can afford to write, which in turn will make it harder to attract new readers and lead to a narrowing of our readership base.”