News Release

Open for single workers only? Point-based immigration increases poverty risks for migrant families

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Southampton

Skilled overseas workers with families face a higher risk of poverty than UK workers and their net incomes will be lower than UK workers' in the same professions under the UK’s points-based immigration system, a new study has found. As well as creating social and financial disadvantages for immigrants, the researchers warn the system could make the UK less attractive for overseas workers who could fill the country’s skills gap.

Researchers from the ESRC Centre for Population Change at the University of Southampton have calculated and compared the net average income from seven skilled professions, for three different household types for migrants and non-migrants.

The results, published in the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, show that migrant families with one full-time and one part-time worker and a small child are at much higher risk of poverty than UK families, even if their joint income is far above the median national wage. In one example, a migrant family aged 25+ with joint earnings worth £40,319 receives £207 less per week in social benefits than a UK family on the same wages. As a result, the UK family lives above the poverty line while the migrant family lives below it.

While the UK was an EU member state, EU workers in the UK had the same rights to social benefits as UK workers, while the rights of other overseas workers were more restricted. After Brexit the social rights of all workers on visas have been restricted, affecting a much larger group than before. In contrast to UK workers, no migrant workers on a visa are now entitled to social benefits relating to housing, children and income support; they also have to pay visa fees and the majority pay extra healthcare charges.

Traute Meyer, Professor of Social Policy, and Paul Bridgen, Associate Professor of Social Policy at the University of Southampton, who led the study, said, “The UK wants to be open for skilled workers after Brexit, and the government has set a wage threshold which workers and their families must cross to be allowed to come. However, our research shows that because new policies withhold child-related social rights for new migrants, the UK is only a poverty-proof destination for single migrants or migrant families earning significantly above this government threshold.”

The researchers discovered these findings by identifying the median weekly gross incomes of full-time workers in seven professions, using official wage statistics for 2021. They then assumed that these workers live in three types of households: as singles, one-and-a-half breadwinners and breadwinner households with one full-time worker and one full-time homemaker. This led to 21 household types. They then calculated a net income for UK citizens by applying tax, national insurance, and Universal Credit entitlements; for the migrant families they applied tax, national insurance, a healthcare surcharge and visa fees. To gauge household's poverty risks they compared the net income of both groups with a 'decent standard of life threshold' formulated by the University of York and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Prof Meyer continued, “some will feel that the differences are fair, based on the argument that adult workers just coming to the country should not be entitled to extra public support.

“However, others may be concerned the UK is losing out on talent because international workers might prefer to go to other EU countries where their families are entitled to support.”

“In addition, the fairness of health care charges on migrant health workers was publicly questioned during the COVID-19 pandemic, given they were risking their lives for UK patients but had to pay a healthcare surcharge to be looked after by the NHS themselves. We show that to be excluded from measures supporting parents has far greater consequences for migrants' incomes. This might be of concern to those members of the public who believed that the healthcare surcharge was unfair.”

The team also warn that the impact on migrant families is contrary to the UK government’s commitments as a signatory to 1989 UN Convention on the Human Rights of the Child. They are now planning follow up studies to find out how migrant workers with children who have come to the UK since 2021 cope without support for their families, especially those on earnings closer to the visa threshold of £25,000 and those working in "shortage occupations”.

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