The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the shortcomings with the UK social security system. While the Westminster Government’s efforts to temporarily support the social security system – most notably through a £20 weekly uplift to Universal Credit – were welcome and much needed, ultimately they have been insufficient to make our benefits system fit for purpose. Ahead of the Budget on 3rd March 2021, our research collaboration is joining a growing number of academics, campaigners, charities, and activists to make the case that the Government must keep, and extend, the £20 uplift in order to address the severe hardship and inequalities faced by those living on a low income. We also provide evidence that greater financial support is required to ensure families on a low income are able to meet their needs.
This briefing note explores why so many low-income families report spending more, not less, since Covid-19 gripped the nation in spring 2020. It brings together the findings from two online surveys of a representative sample of working-age adults in the UK fielded by the Resolution Foundation in May and September 2020, and a number of vivid accounts from parents and carers themselves, drawn from the ongoing ‘Covid Realities’ participatory research programme.
Families on low incomes are adept at managing on a limited budget, often finding creative, if time-intensive, ways to get by. When the pandemic hit, however, many of these strategies for navigating life on a low income became difficult, if not impossible, to sustain. At the same time, school closures, social distancing and other Covid-related disruptions have led to increased core costs for many families.
The evidence presented in this note shines an unforgiving light on the absence of targeted, adequate support for families on a low income, who today face the combined insecurity of Covid-19 and increased financial pressure. Moreover, it underlines the importance of understanding the differential experiences of the pandemic.
Deductions can be taken from benefit payments for a range of reasons including repayment of universal credit advances, legacy benefit overpayments, budgeting loans, rent arrears, utilities bills and mortgage interest. In April 2020, the Westminster Government temporarily paused the recovery of benefit overpayments for three months as part of its emergency response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Government Government chose not to suspend the recovery of advance payments to universal credit. Advance payments are repayable loans, which many claimants receive from the government during the five-week wait for their first universal credit payment. The suspension of government debt recovery was only a temporary one; and the recovery of benefit overpayments recommenced in July 2020. In this paper, we explore the impact of repaying these government debts on people who are already on very low incomes.
In this briefing paper, we set out the findings relating to experiences of social security from the first three months of the project. Drawing on 116 reflections from 32 Covid Realities participants, this paper addresses the lived experience of social security amid Covid-19 and examines the impact of recent government changes to social security on families in receipt of benefits. The key themes addressed here are: the daily work of getting by on social security amid rising family costs during Covid-19; the variable impact of the £20 weekly increase in Universal Credit; enduring problems caused by the five week wait for Universal Credit; the pause and return of conditionality; contact with advisors during Covid-19; and the continued stigmatisation of benefit receipt.
We close by setting out key recommendations for change – recommendations which are both grounded in the lived experiences documented here and drawn from discussions with participants themselves.
As part of our Covid Realities research project, fifteen parents and carers living on a low income shared their everyday experiences with us in June 2020. Their narratives emphasised that the coronavirus pandemic has introduced new, additional and often extreme levels of hardship and difficulty to their lives.
Lockdown brought new expenses to finding and securing daily essentials, testing already-stretched budgetary practices and placing additional burdens on people’s mental health. In this briefing note, we provide an overview of the main findings from this exploratory study and draw directly upon the testimonies of participants to set out key recommendations for change.