Making a difference together: five key lessons from Covid Realities

Published on: 
24 January 2022
Written by: 

Ruth Patrick and Rosalie Warnock
Covid Realities

The cost of living crunch is rightly attracting lots of attention, with millions fearful of how they’ll get by as costs rise yet further. There is an urgent need to provide families with more support through our social security system: a system that has become unfit for purpose following cut after cut, with successive governments seemingly unwilling to recognise that social security is an investment in us all.

We have seen first-hand the problems with our social security system. Since 2020, in partnership with parents and carers, we’ve been documenting everyday life on a low income during the pandemic. As the core Covid Realities research programme draws to a close, we wanted to share five key lessons from this work.

1. Families have nothing else to cut. The combined impact of life on a low income and the pandemic has left families with children struggling to get by, routinely having to make difficult decisions about where to cut back in order to make ends meet. As the cost of living continues to rise, families do not have anything left to cut.

Erik set out what this means to his family:

"I don't know of any other cutbacks I can now make to help cover the cost of energy price rises. I have now reached a point where I will be unable to heat the home I share with my daughter at all over the winter. Up to this point we limit baths / showers and I do not do the washing up with hot water. The government needs to urgently address the situation to help avoid suffering by many people throughout the winter. It's not just energy. Prices of food and essentials are also increasing which is a daily struggle. We both put a brave face on outside as I have never been able to ask for help from others and have no family to fall back on. This is going to be a very tough winter.”

2. The social security system is simply not doing its job - rather than providing security, which should be its core purpose at all times, it is driving families who are already struggling into even deeper poverty. This is exemplified by the government’s decision, against cross-party advice, to remove the £20 increase to universal credit (UC) in October 2021. The impact of the austerity years and continuing cuts to provision meant that Britain entered the Covid-19 pandemic with a social security system that was already in poor health. Temporary measures (welcome but insufficient) have now been withdrawn, and the real-terms fall in the value of benefits payments indicates a pernicious problem of inadequate support. Temporary, localised, discretionary and charitable support can only and should only ever be a partial fix. What is needed is a revaluation and recommitment to investing in all of us, and in our individual and collective futures - demonstrated by proactive financial investment in our social security structures.

Aurora, a widow living in London who is subject to the benefit cap explains how little support she receives:

“We are capped on UC. I’m a widowed parent of two primary-aged children. Our rent alone is over 95 per cent of our total benefits.”

3. Poverty and everyday hardship are negatively impacting mental health. Endemic and sustained financial insecurity combined with the prolonged and ever-changing impacts of the pandemic mean that families on a low income are facing sustained emotional strain, which is generating negative mental health effects.

Fiona explained how this affects her:

“Today things began to open up more, but rather than feeling joy I am mentally exhausted. I have just paid monthly bills and don't have much left to go back out and enjoy the easing of lockdown"

4. Policymaking and national conversations about poverty and social security can only be improved when we include the voices of those with lived experiences. More participatory processes and practices (such as paid consultations and evidence gathering) will strengthen our understanding of the problems, and also lead us to solutions grounded in the everyday realities of what needs to change and why.

Cat wrote about why this is so important:

"Including people with direct experience in research, not only as data sources, but also as collaborators, is the only way to uncover a holistic picture of families and their circumstances living on a low income. It gives an invaluable insider perspective that is unattainable for most researchers held back by their own - most likely compassionate - assumptions and preconceptions. If we want to create a social security system that truly works for the people who experience it, it is paramount to listen to their voices."

5. We can all do more to collaborate and connect with each other. Collaboration has been at the heart of Covid Realities, which is itself a collaboration between parents and carers living on a low income, universities and Child Poverty Action Group. But Covid Realities has also enabled wider collaborations with academic and charitable partners across 14 other research projects, challenging an ethos of competition, and facilitating open and inclusive conversations about policy and ways of working. By collaborating, we can learn from each other and strengthen our evidence base for policy change. We can forge new connections, sharing experiences and even supporting each other in difficult times.

This has been central to Covid Realities and has been important to all of those taking part, as Isla explains:

“It feels like a community. Hearing other people’s life experiences and thoughts and opinions is helpful. Knowing other people are going through similar to you makes you feel like you are not alone. Knowing we’re trying to make a difference between us to everyone’s lives is also empowering! Together we are making a difference.”

As we approach the spring, we face a time of considerable fear and uncertainty for millions of families, who are already trying hard to get by on too little. We need politicians to act on poverty, and on the cost of living, placing social security at the heart of their efforts. The evidence from Covid Realities shows why this matters, and also can help provide a roadmap of where to start, and what a different and better future for all of us might look like.

Read the final Covid Realities report

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