Documenting the experiences of low-income families during the pandemic: the ethical challenges

Published on: 
23 April 2020
Written by: 

Ruth Patrick, Kayleigh Garthwaite, Madeleine Power and Lizzie Flew

There is already evidence emerging that although the COVID-19 pandemic will affect us all, it won’t affect us all equally. Existing inequalities and vulnerabilities are being heightened. Families with dependent children are likely to be negatively affected by the financial, emotional and physical implications of the pandemic and resultant lockdown. This is especially acute for families living in poverty.

Evidence from Child Poverty Action Group’s Early Warning System, which gathers information from advisers about how changes to the social security system are affecting the lives of children and families, suggests that families are struggling with the additional costs of raising children during a pandemic, most notably because of school and nursery closures and the subsequent loss of financial and social support (and the shortcomings in packages of support, such as the voucher scheme to replace free school meals). Families who were already facing poverty before the pandemic began may now be struggling even more, because of the additional costs of having the whole family at home, all day, every day, and/or because of income shocks caused by the loss of paid employment. There will also be families who are pushed into poverty as a result of the pandemic.

Families living on a low income are at particular risk from the additional challenges COVID-19 is raising, particularly in terms of ill health and caring responsibilities for others. Added to this are elements of deservingness that are creeping into decisions in the social security system – for example, although we have seen increases in the universal credit standard allowance, there has not been an increase to the benefit cap which particularly impacts upon larger families. CPAG is calling for the cap to be lifted.

It’s vital we document the implications of the pandemic for families living on the lowest incomes. Our new project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, will explore how families in poverty navigate this crisis, and track how the social security system responds and copes using data from CPAG’s Early Warning System. We will bring together ongoing research projects and directly record families’ lived experiences. It is vital that we focus on documenting lived experiences of poverty during this crisis because in an era of big data and social distancing, there is a real risk that the lived experiences of those who are suffering the immediate and medium-term aftershocks of the pandemic are overlooked. As Gav Aitchinson has written: “marginalised people do not need to be given a voice, they need access to an audience”.

We will work with researchers to bring together the longitudinal qualitative, quantitative and participatory research that is already underway. All researchers are facing the challenge of how and indeed whether to proceed with interviews given social distancing, and how to explore the impact of COVID-19 in the most ethical and sensitive way possible. This project will help us ensure we can navigate these challenges together.

Even in ‘normal’ times, there are significant ethical considerations when researching the experiences of families in poverty; in a pandemic these become more critical and more difficult to work through. All researchers of poverty and social security must now consider how to conduct fieldwork in this shifting ethical terrain, ensuring research is sensitive in its duty of care not only to families living in poverty themselves, but in its wider relationships with stakeholders. So far, we have identified three key elements as central to thinking this through, and these apply both in our own efforts to capture lived experiences through this project, but also in our collaborative conversations with researchers on other projects about how to conduct research in these times.

Firstly, it is important to enable collaboration in the design and delivery of a project. We are creating an online hub to allow key stakeholders to learn from each other, and share their expertise within the academic community. This will mean researchers can collectively consider how to ensure their fieldwork is ethical and effective in these complex times. The hub will also act as a space for families living in poverty to share their experiences of the pandemic, and how it affects their everyday lives. This participatory approach will also see families involved in disseminating the research and engaging with policymaking.

Secondly, researchers must ensure those who have a voice are able to share it. Collaborative research carried out by Poverty2Solutions has emphasised as a starting point “an ethical partnership, with individuals living in poverty seen as partners in the research (rather than as subjects) and the research being conducted in a transparent and open way”. This is particularly complicated when considering how to navigate qualitative, and especially participatory, co-produced fieldwork, given social distancing and digital exclusion. Moving to online forms of data collection via websites, email and Skype interviews may be suitable for some people, in some instances. However, some people living on a low income do not have access to an internet-connected device. As the APLE Collective have recently written, “COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on a digital divide and the effects of digital exclusion on low-income communities”.

This of course raises wider questions about what the Government can do to break down this digital divide, but for our project it raises the question of how researchers can adapt ongoing fieldwork to generate new, timely and policy relevant data that highlights how the social security system needs to adapt. We therefore need to provide a space for families in poverty to document and share their experiences, but in a way that is sensitive to the incredibly fast changing and challenging time they are living through.

Thirdly, any research needs to take care not to cause further distress and hardship. Some people living in poverty are being further pushed into hardship by the pandemic.

We need to be mindful of the overwhelming pressures facing those already most impacted by structural inequalities. We need to be especially cautious about taking up people’s time during a period of endemic uncertainty and distress. Time is at a premium for all of us as we variously manage the demands caused by social distancing, caring responsibilities and getting hold of basic essentials. It is therefore vital to make sure any research does not make unreasonable or unrealistic demands of people’s time.

And for researchers, our work life has changed beyond recognition. We need to find new ways of connecting virtually, and we hope that our online hub will make a valuable contribution. We also need to make sure we are effectively disseminating our research and engaging policy makers as we go along to inform their decisions. We hope in this way to lay the foundations for policy making that is informed by the challenges faced by families living in poverty now and after the pandemic.


This piece is based on a longer piece on the Discover Society site.

The project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit