Benefits for families on a low income

Universal Credit

Universal Credit is a new benefit for people of working age which is being introduced in stages across the country.

It will eventually replace

  • Income Support
  • income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
  • income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Housing Benefit
  • Working Tax Credit
  • Child Tax Credit

Currently, in some places you may have to claim Universal Credit instead of the benefits below. However, this will depend on your circumstances – different criteria apply in different areas.  You can check here whether you meet the current eligibility conditions where you live.

You can claim Universal Credit online at or contact the Universal Credit helpline on 0345 600 0723 if you need help making your claim.

See our Universal Credit page for further information.

Income Support

Income Support is a means-tested benefit paid to certain groups of people who do not have enough money to live on.

Income Support is a non-contributory benefit. This means that it does not depend on national insurance contributions you have paid.  If you get Income Support you will also be entitled to Housing Benefit, and other help, for example, with your council tax, health costs and free school meals. If you have a mortgage, you can get some help towards your interest payments (from April 2016 the waiting period for such help will increase from 13 weeks to 39 weeks for new claims).

If you are over pension age, you will not be able to claim Income Support but can claim Pension Credit instead .

To get Income Support, you must either not be working at all or work less than 16 hours a week. If you have a partner who lives with you, they must work under 24 hours a week. You can qualify for Income Support if you are bringing up a child aged under 5 (or a foster child aged under 16) on your own, or receiving Carer’s Allowance.  There are other categories of people who do not have to be available for work and may be able to claim Income Support if their income is very low. You can contact our advice service to find out whether you might be able to claim.

To claim Income Support phone 0800 055 6688 or download a form at:

Jobseekers Allowance (JSA)

JSA is a benefit for people who are unemployed but capable of work or who are working less than 16 hours a week. To get JSA you must show that you are looking for work.

JSA is a benefit in two parts.  If you have paid enough national insurance contributions in the past, you could qualify for contribution-based JSA.  This is paid at a flat rate for the first six months you are unemployed and can be paid even if your partner is working or you have savings .

Income-based JSA can be paid to top up any contribution-based JSA or on its own.  It is means-tested and the amount you get will depend on your financial circumstances.  If you have a mortgage, you can get some help towards your interest payments (from April 2016 the waiting period for such help will increase from 13 weeks to 39 weeks for new claims).

If you are living with a partner and claiming income-based JSA, your partner must either not be working or working less than 24 hours a week.

You can claim Jobseeker’s Allowance online at: You can claim on the phone by calling Jobcentre Plus: 0800 055 6688.

Working Tax Credit

If you are single and work at least 16 hours a week, you may be entitled to Working Tax Credit.  If you have a partner, you must work at least 24 hours a week between you (with some exceptions).

Entitlement to Working Tax Credit depends on your circumstances and how much money you have coming in. Self-employed people as well as people who are employees can apply.  Working Tax Credit can include extra amounts for disabled workers and people who work more than 30 hours a week.  It can also help towards childcare costs, for example for a registered  childminder, after school club or nursery.

If you are a foster carer, you can be treated as self-employed and you may be able to get Working Tax Credit. Your foster allowance will not be treated as income unless it is above certain limits.  Some foster carers can choose whether to claim Income Support, Jobseeker’s Allowance or Working Tax Credit. Contact our advice service if you think this might apply to you.

You can check whether you qualify for Working Tax Credit here.

You can order a claim form online here or by calling the Tax Credits helpline on 0345 300 3900.

Housing Benefit

This benefit helps people on a low income to pay their rent. You may be able to get Housing Benefit even if you are working. The amount of help you get depends on your income and savings and your family circumstances.

Housing Benefit will be worked out differently once you’ve reached the age at which you qualify for Pension Credit so you may become entitled to Housing Benefit even if you weren’t before.

Housing Benefit is a local authority benefit which means you need to contact your local council for a claim form.

Private sector tenants
If you have a private landlord, your Housing Benefit will normally be based on the Local Housing Allowance. The Local Housing Allowance is based on rent prices for the area you live in and limits the maximum amount of help you can get. The amount you get also depends on the number of rooms the Housing Benefit rules say are needed for your household. This may not be the same as the number of rooms you are actually living in.

If you’re thinking of moving into private rented accommodation, you can ask the local authority’s Housing Benefit office to tell you which Local Housing Allowance figure will be used to calculate your Housing Benefit or you can check here.

Council and housing association tenants
If you are of working age, your Housing Benefit may be cut if your home is considered to be big for you. This is known as ‘the bedroom tax’.

Your Housing Benefit will be cut by 14% of your rent if you have one spare bedroom and by 25% of your rent if you have two or more spare bedrooms. You can check here whether your home will be considered too large for you.

In certain circumstances you will be allowed a spare bedroom. For example:

  • If you or your partner are disabled and regularly need an overnight carer to stay with you.
  • If you have a disabled child who receives the DLA care component at the middle or hightest rate and would otherwise be expected to share a bedroom. The local authority must be satisfied that their disability prevents them from sharing with another child.

Click here for more information about exemptions to the bedroom tax.

Benefit Cap
This was introduced in 2013 and restricts the amount of Housing Benefit that some households can receive. It applies to people of working age whose household receives more than £500 a week in benefits (£350 for single claimants). If you’re affected your Housing Benefit is cut so that the total amount you receive in benefits isn’t above the cap level.

You are most likely to be affected by the cap if you have a larger family, particularly if you live in an area with high rents.

In most cases the cap will not apply if you or your partner have reached the qualifying age for Pension Credit or if you work enough hours to qualify for Working Tax Credit (even if you don’t get it). You will also be exempt if you or anyone else in your household receives:

  • Disability Living Allowance
  • Attendance Allowance
  • Personal Independence Payment
  • Industrial Injuries Benefit
  • the support component of Employment and Support Allowance
  • War Widow’s / Widower’s Pension

If you’ve been employed for at least 50 weeks and you lose your job through no fault of your own, the cap will not apply to you for 39 weeks.

There is an online calculator at where you can check if the Benefit Cap applies to you.

At some point after Autumn 2016, the benefit cap is due to be reduced to £442 a week in London and £385 in the rest of the country. When this happens will depend on where you live. As yet, no schedule has been released. Recipients of Carer’s Allowance and Guardian’s Allowance will be added to the list of those who will be exempt from the cap.

Shortfalls of Housing Benefit
If the amount of Housing Benefit you are entitled to doesn’t cover all your rent, you may have to make up the difference out of any other income you have, or find cheaper accommodation. Your other options could include applying to the council for a Discretionary Housing Payment to cover the shortfall, or negotiating a cheaper rent with your landlord.

If you’re affected by the Benefit Cap it’s worth checking whether anybody in your household can get one of the benefits that means the cap won’t apply to you.

You may also wish to consider contacting your council’s Children’s Services department, especially if you are looking after a disabled child or a child whose health or development is likely to be damaged because of the reduction in your benefit. They may be able to help with a cash payment or other assistance.

For more information about the options available to you if your Housing Benefit doesn’t cover all your rent, visit the Shelter website or contact our advice service.

Housing Benefit is gradually being phased out, to be replaced by Universal Credit. At present, whether you claim Housing Benefit or Universal Credit depends on your circumstances and where you live – see above. The bedroom tax and Benefit Cap apply to Universal Credit as well as to Housing Benefit.

Council Tax Reduction

From April 2013, a local system of Council Tax Reduction (also known as Council Tax Support) has replaced the previous national system of Council Tax Benefit for people who can’t afford to pay a full Council Tax bill. The amount of money the Government has given councils for Council Tax Reduction is less than was available for Council Tax Benefit.

Under the new system, each local council can decide which groups of people it will help and how much help to give.  Pensioners are protected from the changes, so councils may have less money available to help people of working age.  Many councils have set up a hardship fund providing discretionary payments to people facing difficulties paying their Council Tax.

You should contact your local council for details of the scheme in place where you live.

The Social Fund

Until April 2013, families living in difficult circumstances and on a low income could apply to the Social Fund for help in the form of discretionary community care grants and crisis loans. The money which used to pay for these schemes has now been given to English local authorities and to the Scottish and Welsh governments to provide ‘local welfare assistance’ to support residents in their area. You can find details of your local scheme here. However, other elements of the Social Fund remain.

Budgeting Loans continue to be available. They can be paid to people living on means-tested benefits, to help with essential lump sum expenses. These include costs of moving home or buying household equipment, furniture and clothing.  Budgeting loans have to be paid back to  the Social Fund, but they are interest-free.  You won’t necessarily get a budgeting loan just because you are eligible to apply.  The decision will be made following a review of your circumstances.

You can apply for a budgeting loan on form SF500, which is available from local benefit offices.  You can download a copy of the form at

For people in receipt of Universal Credit, budgeting loans have been replaced by budgeting advances.

There are other types of Social Fund payments including funeral payments and maternity grants. For more information about the Social Fund, contact our advice service.



Useful factsheet




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