The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on what it means to experience sudden income loss, insecurity and difficulty making ends meet. It has also revealed and exacerbated the instability that many low income families already face on a regular basis. But what can be learnt in the light of responses to the pandemic? Our research with low income families before and during the pandemic, looks at what families need to get through difficult times. It is a useful lens through which to reflect, both on the support provided during the crisis, and what families need to bring some stability beyond the pandemic.
As the pandemic started to affect everyday life in the UK, the government stepped in to provide a radical range of support: furlough and self-employment support to help protect jobs and earnings; increasing Universal Credit (UC) by £20 a week to bolster the social security safety net; mortgage holidays and eviction bans to reduce the risk of losing a home; free school meal vouchers over school holidays to help alleviate food insecurity; and provision of digital equipment in recognition of the digital gap. Of course these were not without issues: gaps in support for some self-employed, the temporary nature of the UC uplift, the delivery of digital support, and the government’s reluctance to extend the free school meal vouchers over the school holidays. However, these measures have been vital, not only to help millions caught up in the impact of the pandemic, but also in attempts to prop up businesses and the economy. These responses also signal the ability of government to take action, provide back up, and spend money boosting support for households in times of difficulty – in contrast to the austerity/cutting back mantra of the last decade.
But delving deeper, the introduction of these multiple measures raises questions about the adequacy of existing levels of support. The need for action during this crisis was clear, as suddenly the lives of swathes of the population were disrupted. Families with children have been particularly hard hit financially. Moreover, the pandemic exposed insufficiencies and gaps in the pre-pandemic safety net that people depend on in ‘normal times’.
Our study following 14 families over the last five years through to the first six months of the pandemic showed the insecurity low income families often faced from multiple pressures even before the pandemic hit. Poor health or a change in family circumstances, as well as unstable and low paid work or issues with benefits meant fluctuating income and financial constraint. Over the five years we saw how parents worked hard to make ends meet but keeping their heads above water could be an ongoing battle. Where finances were on a tightrope, losing a job or experiencing a delay in benefits could jeopardise the delicate balance with an ever-present risk of being pulled under, debt and going without essentials.
What families really wanted was stability and enough income to manage on without it being a constant struggle. But this has become more difficult in recent years with growing work insecurity, reduced real value of working age benefits, and increasing child poverty, particularly among children with working parents. The pandemic intensified insecurity for families in already precarious situations: those in casual or temporary and low paid jobs were more susceptible to losing work and incomes; extra costs on food and energy bills with children being home added more pressure to already stretched finances; and families without leeway in their budget or savings had nothing to fall back on.
So what difference have government measures and wider responses to the pandemic made to families and how can this be taken forward?
- Furlough helped to ease potential work and income precarity: it enabled some parents (and older children) to keep jobs, prevent a steep drop in income when not working, or at least delay redundancy. But what most helped some families to get by better than others before and during the pandemic was having steady work and pay, flexibility and an understanding employer, highlighting the longer term need for more secure work opportunities.
- The £20 a week UC uplift had made a difference, though this was harder to discern where payments fluctuated, were reduced for example by UC advance repayments, or swallowed up by increased costs. The key issue is that before the pandemic the basic level of benefits was seen as too low and when reduced further by deductions was even harder for families to live on. The £20 uplift needs to be made permanent and extended to families on legacy benefits who have missed out, or better still linked to Child Benefit. Given the reduced value of benefits this is more redressing the balance than an ‘increase’.
- Providing free school meal vouchers during school holidays was appreciated by families, occasionally helping with school uniform costs too. But struggling to manage food costs or ‘food insecurity’ is about lacking enough money to go around per se, and a symptom of the underlying problem of low income that needs to be addressed through reliable earnings and adequate benefit levels.
- Families in our study had kept up with their rent during the pandemic, even though the introduction of ‘eviction bans’ lessened the implications of arrears. Housing Benefit/ UC housing element helped, but families saw rent as a priority due to the deep-seated importance of ‘keeping a roof over your head’, even if it meant cutting back in other areas. However, mortgage holders who were struggling with reduced income had made use of the mortgage holidays. Despite the fear of pushing a problem further down the line, they had little choice as, unlike renters, they were not eligible for support with housing costs from benefits. The option for families to pause mortgage payments averted the prospect of losing their home. This is a measure that could pave the way for better future support for mortgage holders in times of difficulty, in contrast to stamp duty relief which makes no difference to low income families struggling to cover housing costs.
The government responses provided during the pandemic are welcome – but for many low income families further measures are needed to help deal with knocks in life and precarity experienced in ‘normal times’. Indeed the last year has highlighted how sudden job loss and reduced income can expose many of us to financial vulnerability. The experiences and responses to the pandemic can give hope though. Public attitudes are softening towards benefits. This could relate to more people claiming, including many who have not engaged with the social security system in the past, perhaps the feeling that it could happen to any of us, or a greater awareness around the subsistence level of benefits – that it isn’t an ‘easy life’, and a wider dependence on state support. Furthermore, while furlough is not framed as a benefit, it has been providing a vital form of social security for millions of people over the last year, the bulk of which is funded by the taxpayer – getting this across could help ease negative attitudes towards benefit recipients. Importantly, following a period of austerity and benefit cuts, government can now choose to change course, by introducing or stepping up financial support to people facing precarity. The temporary measures put in place were a tacit recognition that the existing safety net was inadequate – and not the ‘normal’ that we should return to.
The action taken during the pandemic could be seen as a precedent and opportunity for positive change. Thus, the government’s ‘road map’ out of the pandemic should be extended to include longer term plans to provide more adequate support for low income families going forward. Three essential features of this map should be:
- An improved level of the safety net, whether by keeping the £20 a week uplift or else increasing benefit rates by amounts proportional to family size.
- Improvements in job stability, for example by improving workers’ rights to secure employment.
- Improvements in the provision of affordable housing, to reduce the costs faced by low income families.