Image: Marcel Walter @ Unsplash
On 11th February 2021, we advertised a Covid Realities webinar on ‘Post-graduate, early career researchers and COVID-19: challenging precarity and inequalities’.
This took longer than I thought it would for me to write everything as my 9-month-old daughter was crying non-stop as she saw all my attention was not really drawn to her 100%.
As I write, I’m aware my thoughts may not be as clear or concise as they could be; I have two children at home distracting me.
When I was offered the opportunity to take part in Covid Realities I was unsure what to expect, but soon I found it very helpful to be aware that there are a lot of other families in similar circumstances, who have been sharing their experiences on the website. It helps me to be able to put down my views and write about my experiences anonymously, which is what taking part involves. I had for a long time felt I was not able to look after my daughter due to money worries and not being able to give her the same opportunities as some of her school friends.
I am a widow and solo parent, who lost my husband, leaving two young children. I have been affected by multiple changes to the benefits system. I’m both affected by the benefit cap (which limits how much I can receive, irrespective of my family’s needs) and penalised for having an extra bedroom. My rent alone takes up 95% of the benefits I receive, but my family are stuck here in high rent accommodation until we’re made homeless. Because of the benefit cap, I’m not eligible for the £20 weekly uplift to Universal Credit – a one-year increase intended to help people at their time of greatest need, during the pandemic.
On the eve of Lockdown 2.0 (in England), we held our second ‘Big Ideas’ discussion group on Zoom as part of the Covid Realities project. In the big ideas groups, parents and carers living on a low income (virtually) come together with the other members of the research team to discuss key issues that are impacting upon the daily lives of parents and carers during the pandemic, and importantly, to think through, together, what policy changes are needed and why. At our most recent meeting, there was a focus on how people’s lives have been negatively impacted by COVID-19, and how the social security system is not always or even often providing effective security for those who need it.
I first heard about Covid Realities through work and it interested me. I work in the benefits system and I’m on benefits - win, win. I read what others have been sharing on the website, signed up and did my first diary, which is what taking part in COVID Realities involves. It was about how I didn’t feel my experience as a lone parent on Universal Credit (UC) in these COVID times was in any way similar to other people’s. I am lucky that I have been around the benefits system for some years and knew what to expect from it. Claiming UC held no surprises to me and I was able to cope with its limitations – I knew when to claim and how much I would get, and so for example looked at housing that was more affordable. I didn’t think I had much to offer the other participants or the researchers, but I’ve found out I do have useful things to share.
In his speech to the (virtual) Conservative Party Conference this week, Boris Johnson argued that COVID-19 should be a trigger for ‘economic and social change’; an opportunity to ‘learn and improve’. He made the inevitable (and perhaps lazy) link with the Second World War:
The Covid Realities project has been working alongside parents and carers since June 2020 to understand the experience and challenges of families on a low-income during the current pandemic. At the moment, we’re working with around 40 parents and carers who are sharing experiences and ideas for change via diaries, discussion groups, and by asking and answering questions recorded by ourselves and participants. Participants can share diary entries with us at any time, and are also prompted by weekly ‘questions of the week’ to tell us about their particular experiences of topical events, such as seeing family again following lockdown, or children returning to school. Together, we are working collectively to document the impact of COVID-19, and to help policymakers make better decisions. As part of this, we are also holding monthly ‘big ideas meet ups’, where participants can come together to discuss and develop recommendations for policy change.
We have seen a significant government response to the financial hit many have faced because of the coronavirus – from the job retention scheme and self-employed income support scheme to the increase in universal credit (UC) and tax credits. While many families will have benefited from the stability and certainty these welcome interventions have given them, they have not been comprehensive. We are always most worried about the people who fall through the gaps – denied the support (whether by design or error) they need from the system that exists to support us all. For the past 18 weeks we have been monitoring and reporting on these gaps through our Early Warning System (EWS). This is what we have found.
In England, it is the start of the last week of the ‘summer term that wasn’t’: a week that would routinely be filled with sports days, summer fairs and preparation for the six week summer holidays. Instead, schoolchildren and their parents have faced a long and – often hard – few months without the routine of school, and with many pupils now not having been inside a classroom since late March. This has created a historically unprecedented and extraordinary set of challenges for children and their parents. It has been incredibly hard for families to navigate a new world of social distancing, virtual learning and, in many cases, what feels like the almost impossible juggle of paid and parenting work, when child-care suddenly disappears.
The United Kingdom (UK) is the 5th richest nation on Earth. Fortunately, we live in a society where we have access to a social security system that supports us when we fall on hard times. Looking after one's citizens is the compassionate & right thing to do. But it is flawed & over the years, the spectre of poverty & deprivation has loomed large & continues to do so.
It’s been a whirlwind few months. This is my 17th week of working from home. Most of that time has been spent setting up our new project, which is exploring COVID-19 and its impact on low income families.
If you believe this week’s newspaper headlines, many Britons are waking up with hangovers after their first night out in months. Summer breaks on the beach are back. There is even talk of fans returning to Wembley for the FA Cup final.
COVID has led to big changes in household incomes across the country; with further changes to come. So far millions of people have lost their jobs, millions more have become furloughed and billions of pounds have been spent by the government in efforts to protect household incomes.