research blog

Researching poverty during COVID-19

Researching poverty series

23 June 2022

Zine-making workshops

Covid Realities is hosting two creative workshops for participatory researchers with artist Jean McEwan. These workshops will provide a space to reflect on the process of doing participatory work, and to discuss the ethical and methodological issues such work involves - with zine-making as the medium!

One of the workshops will be in-person, and held in York (18th July). The other will be an online workshop held on Zoom (21st July). 

About these workshops

These workshops are for participatory researchers to come together and discuss their ways of working, and the various challenges, problems, and questions these pose.

The workshops will create a space for reflection, and provide participatory researchers with an opportunity to share their insights and experiences.

Hands-on and creative, the workshops will also provide a practical introduction to zine-making as part of collaborative/collective research.

One of the workshops will be in-person, and held in York. The other will be an online workshop held on zoom. Please make sure to register for the right one!

There are limited spaces, so register as soon as possible to avoid missing out!

For the in-person event there are also a limited number of travel bursaries available. These will be prioritised for people without institutional funding. Please indicate whether you would like a bursary when you register.

To register for the in-person event please visit the Eventbrite page here.

To register for the online event click here.

Please feel free to email us at for any further information. We are grateful to the ESRC for making these workshops possible. 

Researching poverty series

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.


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.


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


Get Heard Scotland Report can be found here:

Get Heard Scotland features in a cross-research project collaboration with COVID Realities, which can be accessed here:

Researching poverty series

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.


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.

Researching poverty series

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, visit our website 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.

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