Weathering winter in a pandemic: the experiences of families on a low income

Mar 2, 2021

Charlotte McDonough
UK Policy Adviser at Save the Children
Geoff Page
Researcher, Covid Realities
Ruth Patrick
Researcher, Covid Realities

Image: Marcel Walter @ Unsplash

The winter we are just emerging from must surely be one of the bleakest in living memory.  Not only are we in the midst of a global pandemic, but the UK also experienced the coldest January in a decade, followed swiftly by the freezing winds and snowstorms brought by Storm Darcy. Combined with lockdown restrictions, school closures, and distressingly high levels of Covid hospitalisations and deaths, the dual relief offered by spring weather and the vaccine rollout cannot come too soon.

While winter will have been a struggle for everyone, the difficulties will have often been magnified for those living on low incomes. For many families, the extra costs associated with winter, such as increased heating bills, the need to purchase warm clothes for growing children, and Christmas are often impossible to cover even in an average year. When the weather is particularly cold and usual forms of support are harder to access because of the pandemic, this can create additional and sometimes severe hardship.

To explore the experiences of families on a low-income this winter, Save the Children collaborated with Covid Realities, a Nuffield Foundation funded research programme, which is working with over 100 parents and carers from across the UK. Just before Christmas, we asked parents who are part of Covid Realities – all of whom are living on a low income – how they were coping with the costs of winter; whether they were able to cover the additional costs the faced; and if they had access to any additional forms of support.

The responses overwhelmingly sent a clear message: families are not coping.

Participants spoke about the difficulties of living on an income which was not enough to cover their costs. Difficulty covering heating costs was the most common theme, with many participants being unable to heat their home at all, or in many cases only putting the heating on when the children were at home. Families spoke about the need to choose between eating and heating, and the need to buy warm clothes for themselves and their children was also a particular struggle.

For the last 4 years we have been unable to put the heating on in order to keep warm, instead having to wrap ourselves in blankets. I try to provide my daughter with warm clothes but I have been unable to afford a coat for myself. The one I do have is literally falling to pieces.  - Michael, single father of one, based in the south of England

I'm really not managing. I'm spiralling into tons of debt as I don't have anywhere near enough to make ends meet, everything costs more now, food is so expensive. My son's shoes are too small and he has no warm jumpers to fit him. - Callie, single mother of three, based in the South

By the end of the month we are still choosing between eating and heating. We have always aimed to do better by our children than what we had but it’s almost impossible. No one in today’s day and age should be choosing between eating and heating. - Lexie

This has knock-on effects on physical and mental health

The constant stress and worry of being unable to afford basic essentials and the physical health implications of living in cold homes negatively impacted families’ mental health. Parents repeatedly spoke of the impact on their mental health, which in many cases was compounded by the isolation caused by Covid.

I'm so anxious and depressed, I’ve never felt this bad. I was put on antidepressants last week by my GP over all the stress and worries I have over feeding and clothing my children and keeping the heating and lights on. I'm in despair, it’s desperate. - Callie

I now check the boiler compulsively throughout the day and the worry is causing further stress to my mental health.  - Lizzie, partnered mother of two, based in the south east of England

I suffer with chilblains and my daughter's fingers swell in the cold weather. - Michael

Lockdown restrictions and the effects of the pandemic bring additional challenges

These problems are not unique to the pandemic. Prior to Covid, millions of families were already struggling to get by on very low incomes, and the additional costs of winter cause problems every year. However, these problems are now compounded by lockdown restrictions, with participants speaking of the isolation caused by the pandemic having further impacts on their mental health, and the closure of services such as libraries meaning that some forms of support were not available.

I'm so lonely, that chatting to my friends and family online is all I have for company. - Callie

I'm not able to keep the heating on for long. Extra costs due to home schooling due to school unable to accommodate my SEN child, and library closed leaves me little choice but to stay home. - Alex, single mother of one, based in Scotland

I’m home isolating as I have been in contact with a positive case and just had to put extra layers on and sit with a blanket on my lap while working.  - Taya, single mother of one, based in the south of England

Many families rely on support from others to get by

Those parents who were managing to get by did so through a combination of extremely careful budgeting and help from external sources. Many participants talked about having planned carefully throughout the year for the extra costs of winter, putting money aside during the summer for heating costs and Christmas gifts. Even so, this was not enough to last them through the winter.

Most participants had received help from an external source to support them through the winter. The Warm Home Discount was frequently mentioned, and many participants had received vouchers or gifts from charities, as well as gifts or loans from family and friends. Interestingly, the government’s Covid Winter Grant scheme in England was not mentioned by any participants, despite having been introduced a few weeks earlier. This suggests that either participants were not aware of the scheme, or that it had not provided them with the help they needed.

During the summer I'd put extra money on the meter to try and give me some leeway, but it's been so cold that that was used up by early Dec. I am only still able to use the heating because I was sent some Xmas money from a friend that I spent on heating, giving us enough to get through Dec.  - Victoria, single mother of two, based in the north of England

I am hoping to buy us new coats and some boots for my daughter with the vouchers I have received from Covid Realities. Every little really does help for the millions of people trying to survive on a low income. - Michael

The social security system must provide families with enough to live on

There are many reasons to feel optimistic as the weather begins to get warmer and the prospect of lockdown easing comes closer. But the challenges of living on a low income will not go away once spring arrives, or with the vaccine programme. Years of cuts and freezes to social security have meant that families were scraping by prior to Covid, and will continue to struggle unless further help is provided.

Last year, the UK government brought in a temporary uplift of £20 per week to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit. This was very welcome, but is due to be removed in tomorrow’s Budget – and families receiving other legacy benefits never saw an increase, nor did those subject to the  benefit cap. There are current discussions around the uplift being extended for six months; this would be a helpful step, but would not give families the reassurance and stability they need to budget in the long term. It would also remove support from families at a time when unemployment will have hit its peak, and when they are once again facing the extra costs of winter.

Our research shows that, despite this support, families are struggling to cover the most basic costs. The £20 uplift through Universal Credit vital, but on its own is not enough. At the very least, the UK government should not whip away this crucial lifeline at a time when families need it the most. In the longer term, it is essential that the social security system provides families with a stable and adequate income; and here urgent action is needed to look at providing more financial support to meet the costs of children.

This particularly bleak winter may be drawing to a close, but families need to have enough to live on all year round. Ensuring that people are able to keep warm and feed their children should be the very minimum that we expect from our social security system. That it is not currently delivering this speaks to the urgent need for reform: it is vital that our social security system can give families the support they need throughout Covid and beyond.

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