research blog

Researching poverty during COVID-19

11 January 2022

Supporting participation in research: lessons from Get Heard Scotland

No doubt plenty of researchers over the past couple of years found themselves sat on a chair, empty coffee cups strewn about, rubbing their digitally-tired eyes and (constantly re-)wondering “what now?!”. This blog hopes to provide some practical insight into how we supported the participation of people living in poverty in Poverty Alliance’s Get Heard Scotland project. Reflections and insights around recruitment and supporting participation and the responsibilities of researchers when conducting research digitally on poverty during the pandemic are shared.

Although the team was presented with an abundance of professional and personal challenges, we were also able to expand our digital repertoire, and pave access for individuals who had not engaged with research before to feel comfortable and able to do so. We were acutely aware of the ineffectual term of ‘hard to reach’ and worked consciously to create pathways to engage that responded to the challenges people were facing.

Recruitment and Engagement

We developed two tools to support recruitment and participation to expand our reach: a media pack and a chat pack.

Media Pack

The media pack was directed at Local Authorities, charities, grassroots groups, and other third sector organisations who were working directly with those we hoped to speak with. The media pack was a collection of twitter threads, Instagram stories, graphics, hashtags, pre-written e-mail invites, and suggested text messages. This was done to address both the limited capacity of organisations and to ease the circulation of our recruitment callouts, as well as ensuring consistency in messaging across platforms and groups.

An underwritten though fundamental aspect of research, the meta-data (data about how we collected data), for this project was: over 250 organisations and people were contacted, with resultant participation of 32 families. It took over a month of continuous phone calls, e-mail exchanges, texts, and e-public speaking to get our recruitment engaged with.

Chat Packs

The second collection developed were the chat packs. These were pre-delivered to all those who agreed to participate prior to interview. It consisted of a notebook, pens, teabags, a thank you, and a list of useful contacts. We were mindful of the often stunted, sometimes rhythmically jolted nature of distanced, digital research projects. We, in part, addressed this through creating a memento of participation, an item with which to support the actual interview, and a document that can continue to support beyond the remit of the project itself.

Safety and care for participants

We made an incredibly high number of safeguarding care-referrals during this research project. A combination, we believe, to be the result of cumulative lockdowns, intensification of poverty, exacerbation of loneliness and mental ill-health, and overwhelmed services. Sometimes the Community Researcher was the first person someone had spoken to in a while. And there was a relieving aspect to the relative anonymity of the participant – we had never met in-person, we spoke over the phone (only three people wanted to video call), and there was a brief period of prior contact.

But, this also posed some challenges – especially around ensuring participant safety which relied upon training, and not only the supportive but highly skilled safeguarding colleagues on the team. It was difficult to assess risk and safety over a single phone call.

We created a ‘useful contacts’ document which has now become a staple in our Community Researcher’s toolkit. We gathered local and national support organisations and listed their numbers (trying to include a freephone number), e-mails, opening hours, and their purpose. We covered a range of services based on themes cropping up in scoping work; these were men’s violence against women, social security and care services, like winter heating and crisis funds, free food organisations, local mental health groups and children’s organisations. This was part of our contribution to support the ongoing safety of those we spoke to.

Supporting continued participation in the pandemic and beyond

The appetite to engage with research over this period was a cause and consequence of the overwhelmed nature of our connecting community organisations, and the energy required to recount the difficultly of living on a low income. However, we did connect with those who haven’t taken part in research before, based on feedback received.

We adopted a variety of digital methods to overcome a single way to participate. We offered video chat, audio call, and digital diaries, and were explicitly open about welcoming other options. Most people opted for an audio call. The team would always call so to incur the expense of the hour-long interview. We would send a follow up text to check-in and thank the participant too.

To thread participation throughout the process, we hoped to develop group co-analysis sessions with those who agreed to take part. The varieties of life and the limited time to complete the project meant we couldn’t host the initial plan of a digital group to feedback and analyse together. Instead, we adopted 1-2-1 co-analysis sessions with six people, who gave feedback on what our findings were showing- meaning our recommendations were directly based on lived experiences. A challenge of this was around ensuring a variety of voices, so not to homogenise results based on a particular lived experience.

Outwith this specific research project, we also invited participants to continue their engagement through joining the Poverty Alliance’s Community Activist Advisory Group, as oftentimes research can come to an abrupt start and stop for participants.

Conclusion

To conclude, we finish with a brief practical guide inspired from our research journey with Get Heard Scotland:

  • Create an excel document with different pages outlining your contacts. This will become your vital contact page where you can log when you contacted who, their response, their agreement to future involvement and their socials.
  • Create a social media and chat pack.
  • Create a ‘useful contacts’ document.
  • Be prepared to repeat calls, re-send e-mails and continuously follow-up organisations and participants to engage.
  • You will contact way more people than will engage.
  • A significant amount of time will be spent on creating networks to join in the research.
  • People’s schedules are busy, so be flexible and have a Plan B.
  • Offer different ways people can participate. We use video calls, audio calls, and digital diaries. Be open to different methods of engagement.
  • Reimburse participants.
  • Remind the participant a day before, and an hour before you are scheduled to meet.
  • Send a follow-up message of thanks, detailing how they can get in contact further. This will also be on the information they already have in the information and consent documents.

Biography

Beth Cloughton is a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow and was The Poverty Alliance’s former Community Researcher on Get Heard Scotland. Twitter @b_researcher, e-mail b.cloughton.1@research.gla.ac.uk

Links

Get Heard Scotland Report can be found here: https://www.povertyalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/TPA_GHS_Project_Research_Report_FINAL_proof_02-1.pdf

Get Heard Scotland features in a cross-research project collaboration with COVID Realities, which can be accessed here:https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/covid-19-collaborations

18 August 2021

Nothing About Us Without Us

Image: Lukas Blazek @Unsplash

Poverty: Individuals, systems, and statistics

The mission of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) is to solve UK poverty, a mission that was established over a hundred years ago. A truly rounded conversation about poverty will illustrate the problem using statistics, consider the systemic context that drives poverty, and provide a vehicle for people with lived experience of poverty to have their voices heard. A report or briefing that combines these three elements gives a complete picture of the reality of poverty in the UK today. Dry, number-heavy based reports without lived experience input can be difficult to engage with. On the other hand, stories that focus on individuals are incomplete. Statistics are critical for giving a sense of scale and challenging misinformation. Useful for giving a sense of scale, challenging misinformation, and drawing audiences’ attention. Explaining the systems that have led to an individuals’ circumstances gives a much more powerful narrative.

Until recently, JRF’s work has drawn heavily on the first two components, embedding strong evidence-based research alongside proposals for policy solutions. But our approach to working with people with lived experience of poverty needed development.

Alongside this, the wider UK poverty narrative has long focused on one particular ‘superficial manifestation’: poverty defined as insufficient income to meet basic living costs. Whilst this is relatively easy to define and estimate, its narrow framework makes it difficult to challenge the unhelpful cultural models that still persist within the public about poverty. For many, poverty is seen as a set of non-negotiable needs that are not met, effectively conflating poverty with destitution. Further to this, the so-called ‘Culture of Poverty’ outlined here gives rise to several persistent stereotypes. The ‘benefit scrounger’ who comes from ‘three generations of worklessness’, who has ‘poor impulse control’, ‘loads of children’ and indulges in ‘feckless spending’. Furthermore, many believe that the UK is ‘post-poverty’ or tend to blame the individuals for the poverty they face. Individual poverty is seen as a result of self-makingness, a person’s motivation and choices. These persistent, challenging models of UK poverty, alongside

COVID-19 – the social security response

The COVID-19 outbreak has bought into stark contrast pre-existing inequalities in the way that we work, live and play, whilst highlighting and extending existing forms of inequalities and social injustices. It has also shown us that life can sometimes steer us off course. Our social security system is vital for many in providing support during times of crisis. Whilst many of the government’s responses to the pandemic have provided much-needed emergency support, and demonstrated that where there’s a will, there’s a way, it has also highlighted just how inadequate the system is.

Whilst the pandemic has been devastating for so many, it has the potential to provide a catalyst for change, and a real opportunity to reimagine our social security system. As part of this, we need to take care to consider whose voices are included and excluded from the debate. Until recently, there has been limited willingness from the government to really work with and listen to those hit hardest by the pandemic. Rather, the debate has relied on elite perspectives and expertise. We hear much from politicians, think tanks and third sector representatives (and JRF can be included here). Whilst these groups have a lot of expertise to share, we hear rather less from those with the expertise that comes from having lived experience of poverty and having to rely on social security as a source of income.

With nearly half of those living in poverty relying on some form of welfare support (UK Poverty 2020/21 | JRF), those who have experience of the system best understand its challenges and where the solutions lie. A redesigned social security system must be developed in conjunction with those with lived experience if it is to be realistic and authentic. By extending the discussions beyond the practical design of the system to considerations around the principles and visions that should underpin social security policy, engaging with those with lived experience could, and should lead to radical changes to social security over the coming months and years.

Co-designing solutions to poverty

At JRF, we recognise the vital role that lived experience has to play in solving UK poverty. We are increasingly drawing on lived experience, using that expertise to drive our work. Last year’s UK Poverty 2020/21 report found here looks a little different to its predecessors. As well as the coronavirus pandemic forcing us to re-evaluate the data sources we used and how we responded to a rapidly changing world, we knew we wanted to provide an opportunity for people with lived experience of poverty to shape the report. This blog shares our experiences of the process we went through.

This report is one of many where JRF are seeking to provide a seat at the table for those with lived experience. Each of them represents an opportunity to learn and reflect as we move towards a partnership approach with people with lived experience of poverty. You can read more about our learning journey so far here.

Participatory research, like that the Covid Realities project entails, and that JRF are increasingly incorporating into their work, is critical in ensuring the voices of those with lived experience are central in the debate. The Covid Realities research programme has already underlined how often families on a low-income have felt excluded and crowded out of policy discussions. Further to this, it has drawn out solutions such families identify to the challenges they face, providing a mechanism to listening to and engaging with their expertise.

If the Government really wants to ‘build back better’, it must recognise the many forms that knowledge and expertise take and include as many of them in the conversation as possible. That way, there’s a greater chance that we can come out of this pandemic a better and fairer society.

Bio:

Gemma’s research focuses on the role that social security has on providing a route out of poverty. She is particularly interested in the nature of public attitudes towards poverty and social security, and the impact that disabilities and limiting long-term illness have on people’s experiences of poverty. You can contact Gemma via her profile here.

14 July 2021

Cut off, cut out? How a healthcare research project has cast light on digital inequalities

Image: Praveen kumar Mathivanan Unsplash

COVID-19 and digital inequalities

The COVID-19 pandemic has both brought pre-existing health and social inequalities within UK society into sharper focus and created deeper divides. Poorer people are disproportionately affected by exposure to the virus and the consequences of infection. Further, the obligatory shift to virtual spaces has created concerns that those with no or limited access to digital resources may become increasingly excluded from health and social landscapes.

Digital inequalities, while previously perhaps less evident than health and social inequalities, are becoming an increasingly visible and significant part of the fabric of deprivation. In a pandemic, with social distancing guidance and periodic lockdowns, such inequalities constrain access to the essential facets of human life: social contact, health services, education, welfare benefit applications, work and information. The full extent of the consequences of exclusion from these critical areas of life is yet to unfold.

Though a less everyday experience, another aspect of life that is affected by digital inequalities is participation in social research. As Nind et al. (2021) pointed out in their recent rapid review, researchers across the globe have had to adapt their recruitment and data collection methods to adhere to stay-at-home and social distancing imperatives, largely transitioning from face-to-face research encounters to remote methods such as telephone calls or videoconferencing. For participants with ready access to digital resources, with an email address, laptops, wifi or mobile phones, this could present some challenge but be relatively unproblematic. Yet those with limited or no access to digital resources, digital exclusion from research – the lack of capability to contribute their experiences to the development and dissemination of knowledge - represents another form of marginalisation.

People who’ve lived in prison and the ‘Qual-P’ project

Qual-P is a study of the quality of prison healthcare led by the University of Leeds. As part of this research we interviewed prison healthcare staff and people who’ve lived in prison about their experiences of the delivery or receipt of healthcare in the prison setting. The project was originally conceived in 2017, and our recruitment strategy planned well before the onset of the pandemic. Mindful of the multiple and compounding disadvantage experienced by many people who’ve lived in prison, including digital inequalities, we had planned to recruit and interview people about their prison healthcare experiences face-to-face. This approach relied upon relational groundwork, that is, spending time at various community-based services that people who’ve been in prison might use such as approved premises, substance use recovery houses and charitable support services. Becoming familiar faces at these services, we hoped, would serve the dual purpose of facilitating the development of rapport with participants prior to the interview taking place, and minimising recruitment burden for busy service staff. Additionally, we could ensure that participants received project documentation, and that we could arrange for interviews to be undertaken in a private room.

Impact of COVID-19 on Qual-P

Recruitment for the study began at the end of 2019, and our planned strategy was successfully implemented in the early stages. However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that from March 2020, face-to-face recruitment and data collection was no longer possible. Further, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service suspended ethical approval for all studies for four months in 2020.

When we were able to recommence, we were obliged to employ remote methods. The fact that we were simultaneously engaging healthcare staff for the study threw into sharp relief the issue of digital inequalities; although staff were facing additional pressures from providing healthcare in a pandemic, emailing project information and arranging telephone or video interviews was relatively straightforward. In contrast, engaging people who’d been in prison, some of whom had no email to send documents to, or no access to a mobile phone, required a greater reliance on service staff than we had originally intended. Naturally we were concerned that our sample would become skewed in favour of those with access to digital resources, and endeavoured to counter this by working with agencies to negotiate access to agency landlines for those without phones. In addition, we worked with a Patient and Public Involvement representative with a wide network of local contacts. Although he was willing to loan an iPad to participants for a video interview, the risk of viral transmission precluded that option.

Engaging agencies to assist with recruitment was in itself challenging due to the unprecedented pressures on service delivery they were facing. Assistance from project team members was crucial in making connections to enable us to continue data collection, and we are grateful to all those who supported us. However, there are issues with reliance on others for recruitment. Firstly, there is little or no control over who is approached for the study. Secondly, although all of the participants had been verbally informed about the study in advance of the interview, few had been passed the project documentation that had been emailed to the agency. Reviewing the project information sheet, consent form and privacy information during the call was time-consuming and potentially fatiguing for the participant. Thirdly, where individuals were using a landline in the agency, privacy could not be assumed, and needed to be negotiated in advance. Interestingly, privacy seemed much more of a concern to the researchers than some of the participants, perhaps so accustomed to having privacy invaded that it was deemed less important. 

Although it may not have been their preference pre-pandemic, many researchers have found the switch to remote recruitment and data collection methods to be a convenient, efficient and cost-effective alternative to face-to-face research. With ongoing uncertainty about the levels and nature of face-to-face contact permissible, and government guidance inconstant, much research now in the planning stages is likely to embrace remote methods as the primary, if not sole, means of recruitment and data collection. However, we need to consider the potential impact of digital inequalities when developing strategies and ensure that we do not exclude people without access to digital resources.

Acknowledgement: We would like to thank all the participants who gave their time to be interviewed for Qual-P, and all the project team members for their support.

Biography: Sue, Krysia and Laura are researchers working on Qual-P, a project exploring the quality of prison healthcare through interviews with people who’ve been in prison and prison healthcare staff and analysis of patient healthcare records. For more information, contact s.bellass@leeds.ac.uk, visit our website https://qual-p.org or follow us on Twitter @Qual_P.

Disclaimer: This study is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Services and Delivery Programme (reference number: HS&DR 17/05/26). The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.

21 June 2021

FinWell COVID: Conducting research over time during a global pandemic

At the time of the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020 in the UK, we were in the field, collecting Financial Diaries data from financially vulnerable individuals. We knew back then that the impact of the pandemic would not be felt equally, and that our research participants were likely to be amongst those hit hardest by COVID-19 and the associated social and economic crisis. Three national UK lockdown’s later and we are in the field again with a similar study, conducting a one-year project funded by the ESRC, as part of UK Research & Innovation’s (UKRI) rapid response to COVID-19.

Our FinWell-COVID study seeks to better understand changes in people’s financial lives, health and wellbeing induced by COVID-19 itself as well as its associated interventions (e.g. social distancing and isolating) in vulnerable members of society.

The Dilemma

FinWell-COVID is the third project in a programme of work aimed at better understanding the link between finances and health and wellbeing, including the ways that might facilitate this relationship. The project aims to: (1) better understand how vulnerable individuals manage their finances during the COVID-19 pandemic; (2) assess the specific financial issues that they encounter due to COVID-19 and its associated interventions, the strategies they use to improve their situation and how these strategies link to their health; and (3) explore subjective views of community participants and stakeholders on COVID-19 and associated interventions.

All FinWell projects take a mixed-method approach using Financial Diaries and Q methodology. In previous projects, FinWell-Glasgow (2014-2017) and FinWell-London (2019-2020), using Financial Diaries, we found that individuals living on low to moderate incomes have extremely complex and sophisticated financial lives.

Financial Diaries are used to gain an in-depth insight, over time, of the daily financial management strategies of the financially vulnerable. Financial Diaries can capture information on the type of events that may affect individual finances, the coping mechanisms used, and how financial management connects to other aspects of participants’ lives such as their health and wellbeing.

This time, the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated interventions (such as lockdown, physical and social isolation) meant the remote collection of Financial Diaries. Financial Diaries are intensive and need repeated interactions with participants for baseline surveys, weekly diary collection, monthly interviews (typically for 6 to 7 months) and incentive payments. For such challenging research, building rapport between researchers and participants is crucial.

The dilemma was: How can we engage participants and collect in-depth data on individual’s financial lives during a global pandemic?

The planning

For participants’ recruitment, we reached out to 66 participants who had previously been part of our FinWell Glasgow and London projects and who had given permission to be recontacted. Our pool of participants possessed diverse socio-economic characteristics in relation to age, gender, ethnicity, immigration status, health conditions and employment status- but one specific characteristic is persistent across all participants: they are all living on low-to-moderate income.

We put a lot of thought and consideration into planning and designing the research project. Particularly, researching, examining, investigating Data Protection issues, and piloting several tools that could facilitate remote data collection and communication; such as online ethnography platforms, online survey tools and remote communication tools. A key concern was the issue of inclusion and whether the tools we tested would be accessible to participants. Aiming for ‘digital inclusion’, we created what we call a ‘preference form’ for the participants' enrolment stage (conducted via phone calls/emails), where we ask potential participants for their communication and participation preferences from a list of options.

For each stage of the research, there were different options available. For example, phone calls, texts, paper and electronic (excel) diaries, post, messaging and calling apps (WhatsApp), and online collaboration tools (MS Teams). Other questions related to the availability and accessibility of smartphones, tablets, computers and internet connection. These questions enabled us to customize the mode of participation according to each participant's preferences.

What worked and what did not work?

The impact of the pandemic on our previous participants was evidenced at the recruitment stage. A number of them declined the invitation to take part in the research due to the negative impact of the pandemic. Reasons included: workload -especially for key workers-, increasing care responsibilities, stress due to job hunting (lost jobs during the pandemic), struggling with the consequences of domestic violence that occurred during the pandemic and others who reported changes in their circumstances such as moving out of the city.

For diaries completion, the majority of the participants chose to complete a handwritten weekly diary using a Financial Diaries booklet which was designed, printed and sent to them by post for self-completion. The booklet is organised into weekly diaries, and each weekly diary includes sections to capture data on income, expenditures, savings, gifts and health-related and financial-related events. Upon completion of the weekly diary, participants are asked to send a picture of their anonymised diaries via WhatsApp or by email. Upon completing a full month’s diary, we conduct a monthly interview via phone/video calls to discuss diaries. However, others were unable to use any of these options. This was due to health conditions that make it difficult for them to use such tools or self-complete weekly diaries (such as Dyslexia or sight problems), lack of financial literacy skills or lack of digital literacy skills despite having access to smartphones, laptops and the internet. Instead, for these participants arrangements were made to accommodate their needs and collect their diaries in a way that is most suitable for them. For example, by making weekly phone calls to collect diaries, or agreeing to collect monthly diaries in person, meeting them in a public place and at a safe distance.

What is next?

Research on poverty to understand how individuals are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic has increased over the past year. However, methodological challenges that may occur while conducting research amidst a global pandemic are still unfolding. Our experience in FinWell-COVID so far indicates that in order to reach the most seldom heard individuals, a flexible, multi optional approach that addresses digital exclusion challenges, beyond the availability of digital tools, such as smartphones, computers and internet connection, is required.

Bios

Fatma Ibrahim, PhD researcher at the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health, Glasgow Caledonian University. She is an Associate Fellow in HEA and a researcher in Finwell Glasgow and FinWell COVID research projects.

Dr Linda Fenocchi is a health economist and researcher at the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health, Glasgow Caledonian University. She is a former UK civil servant, currently working on FinWell COVID study.

Dr Jack Stout Rendall is a researcher at the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health, Glasgow Caledonian University. He is currently working on the Q Methodology study within FinWell COVID, alongside other research including a social procurement project and a study on mutual aid.

Dr Neil McHugh is a Reader at the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health, Glasgow Caledonian University. His research lies at the intersection between ways to improve societal health and wellbeing and distributive justice.

Dr Olga Biosca, Reader at the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health, Glasgow Caledonian University, is the Principal Investigator of the FinWell research programme which explores the connection between financial management and health and wellbeing.

More information

FinWell COVID is a one-year research project funded by ESRC (grant number ES/V01532X/1). The principal investigator is Dr Olga Biosca, Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health in Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU). Other members in the research team, also from GCU unless otherwise specified, are Professor Rachel Baker, Dr Enrico Bellazzecca, Professor Cam Donaldson, Professor Jonathan Morduch (NYU) and Professor Antony Morgan.

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