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Entitled to Benefit? A Review of State Benefit Take Up by Older People belonging to Black and Minority Ethnic Groups

by Eleanor Scharf[1], Department of Sociology, University of Warwick



Previous research suggests that older people from black and minority ethnic (BME) groups are not only more likely to be vulnerable to poverty than white older people, but that they also face additional barriers in accessing state benefits and are less likely to be claiming their benefit entitlements. Set within the context of the United Kingdom’s increasingly diverse older population, this article explores the reasons for older BME groups’ apparent under-claiming of state benefit entitlements. A particular focus is on housing and council tax benefits and other forms of income support which exist to lift people out of poverty. After outlining the types of barriers experienced by older people from BME groups in accessing their benefit entitlements, the article proposes a number of ways in which under-claiming may be challenged and overcome.

Keywords: Black and Minority Ethnic Groups (BMEs), Older People, State Benefits, Take-up, Discrimination, Poverty


Background and Introduction

According to Help the Aged (2003), older people from black and minority ethnic (BME) groups ‘are much more likely to live in poverty than white older people, face extra barriers in accessing the benefits system, and are less likely to be claiming their entitlements’ (p. 2). In light of the United Kingdom’s increasingly diverse older population, this article aims to explore the reasons for such groups’ apparent under-claiming of state benefit entitlements, including housing and council tax benefits and other forms of income support. In doing so, a particular focus is on identifying potential structural explanations for a lack of benefit take-up by older people from BME groups, including issues concerning forms of discrimination. In addition to structural factors, a further set of potential explanations for low benefit take-up are behavioural or attitudinal nature, reflecting, for example, communication barriers or concerns about stigmatisation. The focus on the theme of benefits take-up reflects a growing concern that public bodies may be inadequately prepared for the challenges arising from the ageing of minority groups. This point has been highlighted by the National Audit Office (2004), which noted that ‘public bodies cannot meet the full range of needs which exist for their services unless they recognise, value, and address the diversity of the society which they serve’ (p. 3). Having identified potential reasons for under-claiming of benefits by older people from BME groups, this article will seek firstly to identify key areas that require a response by policy makers, and secondly, to consider the nature of such policy responses.

The article draws on evidence from a slowly increasing body of research which explores the experiences of older people from BME groups living in the UK (e.g. Scharf et al., 2005; Nazroo et al., 2005; Ball and Northmore, 2005; Warnes et al., 2004). In addition, information has been gathered from a number of stakeholder organisations and agencies which report the experiences of BME older people, including Age Concern, Help the Aged and the Policy Research Institute on Ageing and Ethnicity (PRIAE). Where appropriate, these sources are supported by a range of statistical data that reflect the UK’s growing diversity with regard to age and ethnicity. The article draws on these sources to address the following research questions:

  1. To what extent do older people belonging to BME groups access their state benefit entitlements?
  2. Where appropriate, what explanations are there for the non-take-up of benefit entitlements by older people belonging to BME groups?
  3. What types of strategies are most effective in ensuring that older people belonging to BME groups claim their state benefit entitlements?

The article is organised in four main sections. First, the UK’s changing demographic profile is presented in order to provide the context for a discussion of the substantive issues to be explored. Second, the financial circumstances of older people belonging to BME groups are addressed, illustrating the degree to which such groups are affected by poverty and other forms of material disadvantage. Third, the evidence relating to benefit take-up patterns is presented, with a particular focus on likely explanations for lower take-up rates amongst BME communities. Fourth, potential policy responses designed to improve benefit take-up are discussed. The article concludes with a brief discussion of ideas for further research on the material circumstances of older people belonging to BME groups.



While BME groups are at the heart of many mainstream research projects, older people belonging to such communities are often overlooked. This is surprising given the major demographic changes that countries such as the United Kingdom (UK) are witnessing. Alongside increasing ethnic diversity, the UK also has a rapidly ageing population. According to Age Concern (2008), the UK is going through an ‘extraordinary demographic transition’ (p.4) with the number of people over State Pension age having overtaken the number of children. In 2006, 20.5 million people were aged over 50, representing an increase of 690,000 since 2002 (Office for National Statistics, 2006a). In addition, increasing longevity has led to a considerable increase in the numbers of people in the oldest age groups; in 2006, 2.7 million UK citizens were aged over 80, up 220,000 since 2002 (Office for National Statistics, 2006a). It is amongst these groups that the greatest increases are anticipated in future decades (Table 1).

  2018 2028
  Population growth over the next 10 years Population growth over the next 20 years
Over 50s 4.1m (20%) 6.7m (33%)
Over 65s 2.6m (27%) 5.1m (53%)
Over 80s 788k (29%) 2.3m (85%)
Total Population 5.3m (9%) 9.4m (16%)

: UK population growth projections. [Reproduced with kind permission of Age UK]

The growth of the UK’s older population coincides with an increasing ethnic diversity within older age groups (Age Concern, 2008: 7; Mason, 2003). In research commissioned by Help the Aged (2003), it was found that even though there are lower proportions of older people belonging to BME groups when compared with the overall UK population, there will be a notable increase in these proportions over the ‘next few decades’ (p. 3). These features of the age structure of the ‘white’ and BME populations are highlighted in Figure 1. In general, BME groups tend to be younger than ‘white’ groups. Significant variation between BME groups in relation to age structure, reflecting different migration histories and differences in life expectancy, is highlighted in Table 2. This shows that the Black Caribbean population has higher proportions of older people than, for example, the populations of Indian or Pakistani origin.


 FIGURE 1: Age distribution: by ethnic group, 2001/02 (United Kingdom) Percentages

FIGURE 1: Age distribution: by ethnic group, 2001/02 (United Kingdom) Percentages. [Reproduced with kind permission of ONS]


BME group Percentage
Black Caribbean 13%
Black African 3%
Indian 7%
Pakistani 5%
Bangladeshi 4%
Chinese 4%

: Proportion of people aged 65 and over belonging to different BME groups. [Reproduced with kind permission of ONS]

A growing body of research is now examining diversity and cultural variations which exist ‘within as well as between’ communities (Manthorpe et al., 2009: 96). This cultural variation is exemplified in work undertaken by Bradford’s Policy and Research Unit (1999). This study suggests that between 2001 and 2010, the number of people of Pakistani origin aged 75 or over in Bradford would increase by 182%. During the same time-frame, it was predicted that the proportion of older people of Black Caribbean origin would decrease (Warnes et al., 2002: 13).

While the proportions of older people belonging to BME groups remain relatively low overall, research highlights the ‘geographic concentration’ of BME groups in the UK:

In the UK as a whole, while 40 per cent of the general population live in the 88 most deprived local authorities, the corresponding proportion of ethnic minority citizens is 70 per cent (SEU, 2004: 5). Of the nearly four million pensioners who live in such communities (Dean, 2003: 4), a substantial proportion is therefore made up of older people belonging to black and ethnic minority groups. (Scharf et al., 2005: 34)

Such geographic concentration means that it is essential for local authorities to be in touch with the inhabitants of their local communities. Only in this way is it possible for local councils to act appropriately and tailor spending accordingly. This is especially relevant in relation to the theme of benefits take-up, since local authorities have an obligation to ensure that residents receive their state benefit entitlements (Help the Aged, 2008).


Incomes of BME Older People

Following on from the demographic context above, this section explores the incomes of BME older people in the UK. The background to the analysis is a general improvement in the incomes of older people in recent decades, reflecting rising national wealth. The desire to maintain independence in later life is a recurring theme in research on ageing, and financial security represents a key factor in maintaining such independence (Scharf, 2006). Falkingham’s (2006) analysis of Department for Work and Pensions data (Figure 2) shows that between 1994/95 and 2004/05, the average gross incomes of pensioner households increased by more than £50 per week. Much of the increase is attributable to the growing importance of private pensions. According to Falkingham (2006), the average weekly income from occupational pensions rose by 45%, from £58 to £84, over the period of her analysis.

 FIGURE 2: Rising Pensioner Incomes: Average gross income, 1994/5 and 2004/5

FIGURE 2: Rising Pensioner Incomes: Average gross income, 1994/5 and 2004/5
(Note: Incomes in £ per week, 2004/5 prices) [Reproduced with kind permission of Jane Falkingham]

While rising affluence amongst older people is evident, there are still many older people in the UK who are living on low incomes. In addition to income from private pensions, Age Concern (2008) notes that ‘State Pensions and benefits continue to be a major source of income for people over State Pension Age’ (p. 11), with this representing half or more of the income for 63% of pensioners. From April 2010, the Basic State Pension amounts to £156.15 per week for a couple and £97.65 per week for a single pensioner (DWP, 2010a). For the purpose of comparison, it is useful to note that these amounts fall well short of the median income (before housing costs) of a ‘typical’ two-person household without children, which was £407 per week in 2008/09; 60% of the median – often used as an indicator of poverty – was £244 per week (DWP, 2010b).

Given the relatively low level of the Basic State Pension, older people’s incomes often need to be topped up by means-tested state benefits, such as Pension Credit, Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit, in order to provide a reasonable living standard. Against this background, it is not surprising that there is a substantial body of research that explores older people’s poverty. Writing in 1979, for example, Townsend found that ‘a relatively high proportion of the population in the oldest age groups are living in poverty’ (p. 784). The proportion of pensioners living in poverty peaked at almost 40% in 1988/89 (Bradshaw, 2004: 4), before falling back to around 20% in the early years of the new millennium (DWP, 2010b; Pantazis et al., 2006; Scharf et al., 2006). Some groups of older people are more likely to experience poverty than others, including women, those aged 75 and over, and those with disabilities (Scharf et al., 2006). In this context, older people belonging to some BME groups also have a disproportionately high risk of living in poverty, defined as living in a household with below 60% of median income. People of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin are at particular risk of poverty in later life (Evandrou, 2000) (Table 3).

Household type 2006/07
White 17%
Mixed 25%
Asian or Asian British
of which

Black or Black British
of which
Black Caribbean
Black Non-Caribbean

Chinese or other ethnic group 30%
All pensioners 19%

: Poverty rates for older people belonging to different ethnic groups, 2006/07. [Reproduced with kind permission of Age UK]

Such data reinforce the need for individuals belonging to BME groups to be fully aware of their benefit entitlements. Naturally, financial security is very important in later life, as at other stages of the life course. At one level, income is necessary simply to cope with everyday life, for example to buy food or essential items for the home. At another level, income can be a vital to facilitate participation in a range of social activities, without which people may be prone to feelings of social exclusion and loneliness (Scharf et al., 2006). This reflects Townsend’s (1979) view that a direct correlation exists between lower incomes and fewer visits from friends and relatives (pp. 813-14).

People’s social relationships can easily become damaged by poverty in older age. For example, an older person with a lower income will have less money to spend on means of communication (e.g. the telephone) and on travel in order to visit family and friends, consequently threatening social relationships. Thus, any additional income derived from claiming can yield both social and economic advantages. Moreover, claiming benefit entitlements can be advantageous for society as a whole. For example, Ratcliffe et al. (2008) argue that ‘strong and positive relationships between people from different backgrounds’ can contribute positively to levels of community cohesion (p.8).

The geographic concentration of BME groups within neighbourhoods of particular UK cities adds a further dimension to poverty debates. Ethnic differences in poverty have a disproportionate impact in the most deprived urban communities. Help the Aged (2003) found that in deprived areas of England ‘Somali pensioners are twice as likely to live in poverty as their white neighbours and almost 3 times more likely to live in poverty than the average British adult’ (p. 4). The lower status that is associated with living in a poorer area, and with certain ethnic minorities, has been found to have cyclical characteristics and is therefore hard to escape (Townsend, 1979: 820-21). The fact that inequalities based on ethnicity are structurally based and are ‘worsening’ signifies that future generations of BME elders will also experience poverty disproportionately (Patel, 2006: 6).

Claiming benefit entitlements is crucial for many older people belonging to BME groups because they have been unable to acquire sufficient income during their working lives to provide a reasonable living standard in retirement. According to PRIAE:

The majority of black and minority ethnic elders have not been earning UK pension credits as long as their white peers and therefore receive a considerably lower State income in retirement. And many black and minority elders are discouraged from claiming due to a perception of racial discrimination within the benefits system. (Patel, 2006)

Thus, inequalities in the labour market are reproduced in later life. A distinct correlation exists between individuals who had lower paid jobs in earlier life, and individuals who have a lower income in later life (Scharf et al., 2006: 5). In this context, longitudinal analysis of differences in earnings between BME groups and those of white ethnicity shows that, for each consecutive year, the pattern becomes increasingly unequal, with white groups progressively earning more. This pattern applies to both males and females (Yaojun, 2008). By contrast, Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups tend to earn disproportionately less overall. These considerable differences represent a ‘long-term and potentially very damaging gap between the employment rate for people from ethnic minorities and the rest of the population’ (DCLG, 2007: 25). Such labour market inequalities are inevitably reflected in the (future) incomes of people who retire.

Much research has been undertaken within the field of BME communities and their experiences of employment (Patel, 2006; Hiro, 1971; Modood et al.,1997; Mason, 2000). It has been argued that inequalities that exist in the workplace reflect inequalities in the education system, and such inequalities can themselves stem from poor housing and material deprivation, generating a vicious cycle of inequality (Townsend, 1979: 819). Moreover, there is also a strongly gendered dimension to such inequality, especially as it relates to BME groups. The migration histories, occupational roles, and family obligations of first-generation female migrants mean that women from many BME communities are much more likely to reach retirement age with inadequate material resources (Ginn and Arber, 2001).

Despite ‘universally exclusionary forces’ (Ratcliffe, 2004: 90), trends are slowly beginning to change, with more BME citizens achieving success in the labour market. However, even with these improvements, inequalities persist. It has been noted, for example, that the valued economic role that many BME employees play remain unrecognised, with policies consistently overlooking these workers who are repeatedly employed in lower-paid jobs (Warnes, 2006: 152), sometimes with little acknowledgement of their skills or qualifications (Hiro, 1971). A shorter time spent in the labour market as a result of migration patterns and settlement can mean that BME elders tend to experience lower income in later life than white elders (Patel, 2006: 7). In short, inequalities in the labour market, and other forms of disadvantage which accrue over the life course, reduce the incomes of BME older people, making them more dependent on the receipt of state benefits.


Take-up of State Benefits

In this section, the focus is on the take-up of state benefits by older people belonging to BME groups. This corresponds with the article’s research questions concerning the extent to which older people from BME communities access their benefit entitlements, and potential explanations for their non-take-up of benefits. The context for this discussion are official estimates suggesting that between £3.5 million to £5.1 million of Pension Credit, Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit remain unclaimed by pensioners each year (Age Concern/Department for Work and Pensions, 2008) (Table 4).

Estimated Range Pension Credit Housing Benefit Council Tax Benefit
Non take-up (%) 33 to 41 11 to 18 39 to 45
Unclaimed (millions of pounds) 1,960 to 2,810 380 to 770 1,130 to 1,510

: Non take-up of state benefits by older people, 2006/07. [Reproduced with kind permission of Age UK]

In this context, it is worth noting the absence of relevant research studies and reliable empirical data relating to this theme (Moffatt and Mackintosh, 2009). While there are a number of studies which report lower rates of benefit take-up within BME communities (e.g. National Audit Office, 2002; Department for Work and Pensions, 2002), there is a dearth of statistical data to back this up. Barnard and Pettigrew (2003) conducted a qualitative study on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions to explore reasons for under-claiming of benefits by particular BME groups, but took such under-claiming for granted. Given the lack of relevant research evidence, one can only speculate about the extent of under-claiming of state benefits by BME elders, and say very little about differences in claiming patterns across BME groups. However, as suggested in the existing research, it is likely that non-take-up rates are higher than overall averages for each of the main means-tested benefits. This means, for example, that between 33% and 41% of BME elders are likely not to be claiming their Pension Credit entitlements.

In contrast to the lack of research relating to benefit take-up, there is a substantial body of evidence which explores the reasons for non-claiming. These issues are addressed in the remaining part of this section.

Institutional Barriers: Institutional Discrimination?

Fear of what is known as ‘institutional racism’ or institutional discrimination may explain why some BME elders are reluctant to claim the financial support to which they are entitled. Concerns regarding institutional discrimination were brought to the forefront of public debate with the publication of the Macpherson Report, which examined the way in which UK police dealt with the murder of Stephen Lawrence (Holohan, 2005). The Macpherson Report showed that ‘racism can exist even where there is no explicit use of racial concepts by those involved’ (Fulcher and Scott, 2003: 205). Social institutions such as the welfare system may not be explicitly racist, but the structure or processes that are in operation may nevertheless ‘systematically disadvantage certain ethnic groups’ (Fulcher and Scott, 2003: 205).

Unsurprisingly this can have a negative influence on the take-up of benefits. In this context, Butt and O’Neil (2004) found that some ethnic minority older people were reluctant to use mainstream services due to experiences of discrimination. Moreover, cultural misunderstanding or general unawareness regarding an individual’s cultural values or heritage may be perceived as racist; Manthorpe et al. (2009) found that some service providers experienced ‘difficulties in engaging with older people from black and minority ethnic groups’ (p. 96). Other service providers may place excessive demands for evidence of entitlement on claimants (see Law, 2009).

Institutional discrimination appears to be recycled into the pension planning process with its unfair limitations, especially with regard to occupational pensions (Patel, 2006). Throughout working life, people have different opportunities to acquire occupational pensions; a career-based pension scheme that supplements the minimal state pension. However, as noted above, inequalities in the labour market mean that some people have better access than others to such supplementary pensions. This raises issues of institutional discrimination within the context of pension advice and related support in earlier life.

Multiple Jeopardy

In addition to discrimination based on ethnicity, older people from BME groups may in fact be facing a form of ‘multiple jeopardy’, which is defined by Hammond (1995) as an individual experiencing the combination of two or more forms of social disadvantage. Such disadvantages can include belonging to certain BME communities, older age, or being female. Hammond (1995) found that the experience of multiple jeopardy can have negative impacts on the process of ageing. A person who, for example, is of Somali origin, aged 75 or more, and female is likely to do less well than a white man in his fifties. The notion of multiple jeopardy brings together concerns about ageism as well as ethnic discrimination.

According to Age Concern (2008), ageism is one of the ‘most commonly experienced’ types of prejudice. In a survey undertaken on behalf of the organisation (Age Concern, 2006), 23% of adults surveyed reported experiencing some form of age discrimination. This brings into question the extent to which (either racial or age-related) discrimination is a factor in the lower levels of benefit take-up by BME elders. Moreover, some members of BME groups are reluctant to find out more about what they are entitled to financially because they are unaware of their rights as a citizen living in the UK, and wary of the intrusive nature of the means-tested benefits (Barnard and Pettigrew, 2003). This also applies to people from BME groups – most often women – who assume caring responsibilities in relation to older relatives (Moffatt and Mackintosh, 2009: 18). This suggests that there may be fundamental flaws with the structure of the benefits system, or at least how it is perceived by others.

Language and Communication Barriers

In an advice booklet, the Coventry Partnership (2008) acknowledges that ‘the pension and benefits system can be very complex’ (p. 22). This is clearly a matter of concern. If the system is so complex to begin with, it is likely that those who do not speak English as a first language will experience even greater difficulties in understanding financial information (Scharf et al., 2005: 43). The Coventry Partnership booklet suggests that ‘it’s easy to quietly find out what benefits you may be entitled to, by contacting your local Citizens’ Advice Bureau or Age Concern for a confidential discussion’ (2008: 22), and, in some circumstances, information may be offered in different languages. However, face-to-face discussion can prove problematic if the adviser cannot speak the language of the person they are trying to assist. Clearly, not all older people from BME groups have difficulties with the English language, but some older people (for example, those who migrated to Britain from sub-Saharan Africa) may not have had the same linguistic opportunities as others (Scharf, 2006). Form-filling may be especially difficult, even for those with good English language skills. Help the Aged (2003) found that ‘lack of appropriate language or literacy skills’ and ‘reluctance or inability to use telephone help lines’ meant that older BME people may not seek advice on their financial entitlements. Similar findings are reported by Moffatt and Mackintosh (2009). For example, Pension Service contact revolves predominately around regional call centres, making a phone call the first point of contact for advice. Although there is the opportunity to arrange home visits, these too must be organised through regional call centres (Help the Aged, 2002: 5). Such ‘hurdles’ can prove problematic if language is a barrier for the individual.

Lack of Information about Available Support

Help the Aged (2003) report a general lack of understanding of the benefits system amongst older BME groups. In particular, BME elders were unclear about the benefits available:

[…] many older Pakistani and Somali people simply did not know whether they were receiving the right amount of benefits, and some reported giving up on a claim because the system was impenetrable. Some of the BME elders interviewed had only received their entitlements after recourse to the legal system. (Help the Aged, 2003: 4)

Two key issues that may limit BME older people’s access to appropriate information and support are a lack of awareness of the benefits system and exclusion from the sources of relevant information. In relation to a lack of awareness, the evidence suggests that limited knowledge of benefit entitlements is ‘especially pronounced among older people belonging to minority ethnic groups’ (Scharf et al., 2005: 43). Moffatt and Mackintosh (2009) identified receipt of benefits as a barrier to claiming further entitlements for some BME participants in their qualitative study (p. 17). According to the Coventry Partnership (2008), ‘you are entitled to financial help and support. Many people find it difficult to make ends meet because they are not claiming the benefits they are entitled to – all you have to do is ask’ (p. 22). This so-called ‘Prevention Point’ raises concerns for BME elders, not only because of potential linguistic barriers, but also because it requires older people to ‘make the first move’. General ‘unawareness’ of financial support has been documented in the past (Townsend, 1979: 842) and still persists (Moffatt and Mackintosh, 2009). The second issue relates to what is termed ‘digital exclusion’. Increasingly, benefits information is accessible through websites belonging to organisations such as Age Concern, Help the Aged and local councils. However, research undertaken by the Office for National Statistics (2006) suggests that the number of older people with access to the internet is relatively limited in comparison with younger people. According to Ofcom (2007), less than half of people aged between 65 and 74 had used the internet (41%) in 2007 and even fewer aged 75 and over (20%). By contrast, 71% of the entire UK population had accessed the internet in the same year (p. 28). Given the lower incomes of BME elders, such groups are even less likely to have access to such new technologies. As a result, ‘exclusion from technology’ (Age Concern, 2008: 33) may be a key factor in explaining lower benefit take-up by older people belonging to BME communities (p. 33).


Shaw et al. (2007) argue that there may be a process of stigmatisation linked to the uptake of state benefits (p. 55). This corresponds with earlier research (Townsend, 1979: 825; Marshall and Bottomore, 1992), which suggested that those who become reliant on state benefits perceive themselves to be ‘second-class citizens’. As a result of stigma, some people may not claim their benefit entitlements (Shaw et al., 2007: 55). This raises difficulties for older people, especially those from BME groups, because once they have entered retirement they have ‘no opportunity to change their circumstances, as they are no longer in a position to earn money or increase their savings’ (Whetstone, 2002: 7). Concerns about ‘appearing in need, losing independence’ and the belief that individuals can ‘manage on their own’ without the financial support that they are eligible for in later life must be challenged (Evandrou and Falkingham, 2005: 169).


Overcoming Barriers to State Benefit Take-up

Following the outline above of some of the key reasons why older people belonging to BME communities might not be claiming their state benefit entitlements, in this section attention focuses on possible means of overcoming such barriers. In this context, it is useful to draw on recent debates concerning equality. There are strong arguments against attempts to treat every individual in the same manner. Each individual has different needs and so treating everyone in exactly the same way would ultimately be inefficient and, at times, unfair. It would also cement existing inequalities based on ‘race’ and ethnicity. Treating people ‘equally’ would require precise definitions of what is meant by ‘equal’ and it is likely that in the context of the welfare system this would be based on an approach that would suit the white British majority, thus leaving little room for adaptation. More recently, revised definitions of what it means to be an ‘equal society’ have been proposed by the Equalities Review (2007):

An equal society protects and promotes equal, real freedom and substantive opportunity to live in the ways people value and would choose, so everyone can flourish. An equal society recognises people’s different needs, situations and goals and removes the barriers that limit what people can do and can be (p.7).

In response to such definitions, some researchers have advocated more ‘flexible’ means-tested processes. However, Hills (2004) argues that ‘targeting by means-testing can be efficient in one sense – achieving the result that only those who are the prime focus of policy benefit – but inefficient in another, if those who are the intended beneficiaries miss out’ (p. 137). Offering additional support may be one way of encouraging older BME citizens to achieve their benefit entitlements, but issues continue to surround acceptance of diversity and the acceptance of the right to be different.

Since many of the reasons associated with under-claiming of benefits are structural in nature, it could be argued that welfare services ought to be restructured in order to provide a comprehensive and easily accessible service for all citizens (Patel, 2006). The fact that agencies, such as the Coventry Partnership (2008: 22), acknowledge the complexity of the pension and benefits system challenges the system’s level of accessibility and ease of use. However, a radical restructuring is unlikely, especially in the short-term. Therefore, it is arguably necessary to accept the current system as ‘very complex’, in turn responding by finding ways of ensuring that information regarding benefits is improved and obvious weaknesses of the welfare system are challenged. It is important, especially in relation to BME elders, that welfare advisors assume responsibility for ensuring that their clients are provided with appropriate information in a form that they can understand. There are a number of ways in which this could be achieved, which I will discuss below.

Improving consultation and engagement with older people from BME groups

Improvements in translation and communication services at local authority level are necessary. Several steps have been taken in order to improve these services. For example, documents are increasingly translated into different languages, particularly where there are larger communities of non-English-speaking individuals. As one participant in a study by Manthorpe et al. (2009) commented, ‘Letters translated in [our] languages posted to our houses, telling us about the services would help’ (p. 102). This participant also suggested that there ‘needs to be more talks and sessions so we know what services we can get’ (p. 102). Not only would such an approach provide BME communities with an opportunity to find out what they are entitled to, it would also provide a sociable experience, thus potentially reducing the exclusion faced by people belonging to some groups (Scharf et al., 2006). An alternative solution to the language barrier has been to encourage ‘improvements in the availability of good-quality training in English’, something that was highlighted by Ratcliffe et al. (2008: 5) within the context of migrants. This could be equally beneficial to older BME individuals who face challenges with the English language.

Stable Government and Local Council Support

Local authorities, too, have a responsibility in ensuring that older BME citizens are receiving their benefit entitlements. Local councils ought to be aware of the ethnic diversity within the local area that they are representing. Some areas are more ethnically diverse than others and have different needs. Yet, as Townsend points out ‘although public opinion often seems to favour substantial government intervention to guarantee more support for the elderly, the measures that are enacted are often delayed and do not match in generosity that opinion’ (1979: 785). It is essential that local governments take the ethnic make-up of their locality into account and tailor spending accordingly. This could, for example, seek ‘to meet the high level of need for intensive, holistic face-to-face benefits advice’ (Help the Aged, 2003: 2).

Community Activism: Formation of Local/Community Voluntary Groups

Community activism and the formation of local and community voluntary groups can play an important role in improving services and highlighting people’s benefit entitlements. Community groups that offer culturally-tailored advice, translation services and a social experience ought to be encouraged and supported (Ball and Northmore, 2005: 48). They can also perform the role of an efficient and valuable pressure group. In 2001, for example, Help the Aged (2003) established a ‘Claim Your Rights’ scheme, which specifically aimed to improve levels of benefit take-up amongst older BME groups. While such schemes are valuable, a key limitation of community groups is that they frequently rely on voluntary work and are ‘often poorly resourced and insecurely funded’ (Help the Aged, 2003: 2). These organisations are often dependent on financial support from local councils or charities, so a collaborative effort is required in order to improve the levels of benefit take-up amongst those from BME communities.



Within the context of demographic change and growing ethnic diversity, this study has aimed to investigate BME older people’s access to state benefit entitlements and potential barriers that prevent them from claiming their entitlements in the UK. In particular, drawing on a range of relevant research, the article has sought to answer three research questions:

  1. To what extent do older people belonging to BME groups access their state benefit entitlements?
  2. Where appropriate, what explanations are there for the non-take-up of benefit entitlements by older people belonging to BME groups?
  3. What types of strategies are most effective in ensuring that older people belonging to BME groups claim their state benefit entitlements?

In relation to the first question, a number of studies highlight the under-claiming of state benefits by BME elders (e.g. National Audit Office, 2002; Department for Work and Pensions, 2002). However, it is surprising that the empirical evidence that underpins such a statement is very limited. This means, for example, that we know relatively little about the level of under-claiming by BME elders as a whole, and especially about differences in patterns of benefit receipt between ethnic groups. When other dimensions of population diversity are considered, relating for example to such factors as gender, health status, and family structure, the picture is even less clear. There is evidently scope for further research in this area.

There is much more evidence concerning the second question. In this article, issues relating to institutional discrimination, multiple jeopardy, language and communication barriers, lack of relevant information, and stigma were identified as preventing older people from BME communities from claiming their benefit entitlements. Interestingly, many of the same issues have been identified in earlier research concerning older people in general (e.g. National Audit Office, 2002; Townsend, 1979). However, these issues are of even more importance to BME groups given the generally lower incomes of people belonging to such communities. BME elders are much more likely to experience poverty than those belonging to white groups (Age Concern, 2008), making the claiming of benefit entitlements all the more important.

In relation to the third question, there is much that can be done to improve benefit take-up by BME elders. Among the approaches suggested in this study, improving consultation with and involvement of BME groups in planning services, securing the support of local authorities and facilitating the development of relevant community groups were highlighted as having potential to improve benefit take-up. But much needs to be done in order to ensure that BME elders in the UK have access to the types of income and benefits that would facilitate their full participation in society.

In drawing the article to a conclusion, it is also worthwhile commenting on the nature of the existing research evidence relating to the topic under investigation. In reflecting on the sources used, it is evident that most research tends to homogenise older people belonging to BME groups. As a consequence, differences between BME communities as well as differences within such communities tend to be underplayed. If future research is to develop a more thorough understanding of different BME groups and their distinctive needs it will be important to focus much more attention on such differences and the distinctiveness of particular groups’ experiences.



List of Figures

Figure 1: Age distribution by ethnic group, 2001/02 (United Kingdom). Source: Annual Local Area Labour Force Survey, 2001/02, Office for National Statistics (2002). [Reproduced with kind permission of ONS]

Figure 2: Rising Pensioner Incomes: Average gross income, 1994/5 and 2004/5. Source: DWP (2006), The Pensioners’ Income Series 2004/5, Table 2.1 as used in Falkingham, J. (2006), Population Ageing and Economic Welfare (SAGE Presentation Slide 14). [Reproduced with kind permission of Jane Falkingham]


List of Tables

Table 1: UK population growth projections. Source: Age Concern Key Facts and Statistics 2008 (based on information from the Government Actuary Department’s population projections database). [Reproduced with kind permission of Age UK]

Table 2: Proportion of people aged 65 and over belonging to different BME groups. Source: Age Concern Key Facts and Statistics 2008 (based on information produced by the Office for National Statistics). [Reproduced with kind permission of ONS]

Table 3: Poverty rates for older people belonging to different ethnic groups, 2007/7. Source: Age Concern Key Facts and Statistics 2008. [Reproduced with kind permission of Age UK]

Table 4: Non-take-up of state benefits by older people, 2006/07. Source: Age Concern Key Facts and Statistics 2008 (based on Department for Work and Pensions (2008) Income Related Benefits: Estimates of Take-Up in 2006/07). [Reproduced with kind permission of Age UK]



[1] Eleanor Scharf studied French with Sociology at the University of Warwick and graduated in 2009. She currently works in the School of Languages and Social Sciences at Aston University.



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To cite this paper please use the following details: Scharf, E. (2010), 'Entitled to Benefit? A Review of State Benefit Take Up by Older People belonging to Black and Minority Ethnic Groups', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 3, Issue 2, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at