How can we improve social security? Let’s start by listening to families

Mar 26, 2021

Hannah Aldridge
Senior policy and research officer

While some of us are counting down the days until the next stage of unlocking, eager to go out for a meal or go shopping, for many families living on a low income there is no end in sight. As one parent explained, the end of restrictions would mean going “from a viral lockdown to a financial lockdown”.

This parent was speaking at a parliamentary roundtable last week organised by Covid Realities, a Nuffield Foundation-funded research programme that has been working with parents and carers on low incomes to document their experiences throughout the pandemic, and help policymakers make better decisions.

This collaboration between experts by experience and researchers has meant we are better able to understand how people’s day-to-day lives have changed throughout the pandemic. When a Resolution Foundation survey unexpectedly found that, at a time when we were forced to stay home, the costs of living rose for some households, Covid Realities was able to explain why. Participants were reporting that, with the kids at home and restrictions in place, they were spending considerably more on food, utilities, learning resources and entertainment.

Last week’s event bought together parliamentarians and participants, who shared how they had coped with life in lockdown. As one participant put it: “life during lockdown on a low income has been tough in more ways than I ever imagined.” Parents have been juggling job searching and caring for children: “any time the children don’t need me actively participating in what they’re doing, I’m job searching”. Feelings of anxiety and fear have been widespread: “I’m supposed to go to sleep around 11pm/midnight, but I mostly just lay in bed with a great big knot in my chest panicking over what’s going to happen”.

These experiences shed light on the difficulties people are facing and the impact these have had, but participants also offered solutions. The adequacy of benefits was a key concern. Participants talked about how the universal credit uplift had eased some of the financial pressures they faced but others were excluded as they received legacy benefits. They called for the uplift to be made permanent and extended to legacy benefits and those subject to the benefit cap, as a first step towards addressing benefit levels.

Not only did participants identify ways to improve what is provided by our social security system, but also how it is provided. Their experiences highlight how a direct bank transfer is a more effective way to provide support than a voucher system, which often presents further barriers (eg, being irredeemable online). They explained how the system intended to support them actually treats them with suspicion, making people afraid to ask for help. They talked about being threatened with a sanction if they do not arrive at an appointment on time, and then having to distract their children during an endless wait to be seen.

These are just a few of the experiences documented through Covid Realities, and the insights experts by experience bring to debates about how to improve our social security system. They show how the system can be improved by treating people in need of support with dignity and respect.As the government thinks about supporting people as we emerge from the pandemic, the best place to start is listening to those who know first-hand what does and doesn’t work. As one participant put it: “often solutions and ideas are based on figures, costs and statistics, without actually seeing the real people”.


Note: The project on which the above draws has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.

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