The Society of Authors has warned MPs that Universal Credit could silence working-class writers, impeding diversity in publishing and making it harder to attract different types of reader.
Speaking at the All Party Parliamentary Writers Group inquiry into authors’ earnings on Tuesday (30th October), SoA chief executive Nicola Solomon cautioned MPs that Universal Credit - awarded as a single monthly payment for people who are on a low income or out of work (twice monthly for some in Scotland) - could be to the detriment of authors’ incomes, forcing some to even give up writing all together.
The SoA explained that under the old system, currently in the process of being phased out, some authors with low earnings were able to claim working tax credits to supplement their income, ensuring they could continue to write as a profession. But replacing this with Universal Credit would mean that self-employed people must meet the “Minimum Income Floor” (an assumed level of earnings, based on what the government would expect an employed person to receive in similar circumstances) in order to receive benefits - a threshold many writers are unable to reach. "This is equivalent to the National Living Wage for most working-age people," SoA said. "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."
Solomon highlighted in her testimony to MPs at the inquiry that authors including the likes of JK Rowling and 2018's Man Booker winner Anna Burns have depended on the benefits system to support their writing. In the acknowledgements of Milkman (Faber), Burns notably gave thanks for the support of benefits from the Department for Work and Pensions that - along with the support of her local food bank, various charities and the SoA - enabled her to write the acclaimed book, sales of which reached the highest volume for any winner in the BookScan era in the week after winning the prestigious prize.
Changes to the benefits system however risks driving such working-class writers out of the industry, SoA claims. "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," said Solomon at the inquiry.
"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."