Tens of thousands of people did not claim universal credit during the early part of the pandemic because they felt too ashamed to sign on benefits, often despite struggling to pay rent and bills, a study has found.

The perceived stigma around benefits – with some people feeling, for example, that they were for “dole scroungers” and “freeloaders” – meant many refused state help, or put off making a claim until they ran into serious difficulty.

Even more didn’t lodge a claim because they said they didn’t need benefits, thought the online-only benefit was too confusing or too much hassle, or because they believed – wrongly – that they would not be eligible.

Overall, about 500,000 people in the UK chose not to claim universal credit, even though they most likely would have been entitled to it, the study found.

Nearly half of those who refused to claim benefits reported severe financial strain, leading them to miss rent payments or skip meals. They were also more likely to suffer stress or poor mental health.

Non-take-up of benefits, said the authors of the Welfare at a Social Distance project, was in danger of becoming “an invisible problem”. They urged ministers to reduce stigma around social security and encourage those eligible to claim benefits.

There are currently about 6 million people claiming universal credit as a low-income work top-up or unemployment benefit. There was a sharp increase in take-up during the pandemic as millions of jobs were lost and workers’ hours reduced.

The data showed that 55,000 did not apply for the scheme because they were worried about the perception of people who are on benefits.

One person surveyed by the study said he felt that if he claimed, others would “laugh at me the way I laugh at them [benefit claimants]”. Others felt stigma despite also having a strong sense of entitlement to benefits, having paid taxes for many years.

Older people felt the benefit stigma most strongly, along with migrants, some of whom expressed a fear that if they claimed they would be open to accusations of “benefit tourism,” even if they were eligible.

Researchers said government could help change public perceptions of benefits by treating claimants with dignity and ensuring that the Department for Work and Pensions and ministers spoke respectfully about them.

Ben Baumberg Geiger, lead author of the report and a senior lecturer at the University of Kent, said: “Some of these people say they don’t need benefits – but others don’t claim because they don’t understand that they are eligible, hope that things will get better soon, or are put off by the perceived ‘hassle’ or stigma of claiming.”

The study, funded by the Health Foundation and the Economic and Social Research Council, surveyed over 5,000 non-claimants in July and August last year.

A government spokesperson said: “We want to make sure that everyone receives the support to which they are entitled and we’d urge anyone who thinks they’re eligible for universal credit to apply. Universal credit is designed to be as accessible as possible and has provided a vital safety net for six million people during the coronavirus pandemic.”

This content first appear on the guardian

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