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‘I’m losing hope’: How low income families have been impacted by the pandemic

Academics at York and Birmingham universities are working to document the impact of coronavirus for low-income families and amplify the voices of those on the margins

While the pandemic has affected all of us, Covid-19 continues to disproportionately impact the most vulnerable, people on low incomes and those from minority communities. 

One year on from the UK’s first confirmed case, those who were already struggling have found themselves grappling with increasing costs, unemployment, and, in too many cases, the risk of losing their homes.

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Now, academics at York and Birmingham universities are working to document the ramifications of coronavirus for low-income families and amplify the voices of those on the margins. 

The Covid Realities project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation in partnership with the Child Action Poverty Group, has heard from more than 100 people living in or close to poverty

Dr Ruth Patrick, one of the lead researchers, told the Big Issue the project had highlighted the inadequacies of the UK’s social security system and shown the pandemic had not affected all in society equally. 

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“There’s a sense of everyone going through something together but I think the reality is that the pandemic has further exposed and extended existing inequalities within society,” she said.

“It’s been harder for people on low incomes, they have found their costs have increased or the strategy that they had for getting by on a low income suddenly became impossible.”

Covid Realities has curated an open-source “live archive” documenting families’ challenges of getting by during the pandemic. 

Participants have been informed about the project through charities and third sector organisations and remain strictly anonymous, sharing their stories through a website. Those who contribute are sent gift vouchers as a thank you with some offered mobile phone credit so they can continue to take part. 

The end result has seen dozens of families come forward to share their weekly experience of navigating issues such as benefit claims, unemployment, and looking after children during the crisis. 

One regular contributor, Alex, a single parent from the North of Scotland, said she had struggled due to a lack of Government support. 

“The longer lockdown goes on, the less I’m coping,” she said. “I am going through the motions of housework and shopping. My only child is 14 and refusing to engage with work online. I don’t have the mental strength to support her.”

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In a separate post, Alex said she was “losing hope every day as long as bullies rule the country”.

Another of those taking part is Aurora, from Ealing, London, who recently told the Big Issue she was “close to homeless” after losing her husband to illness and having her Universal Credit payments reduced.

In her latest post on December 29, she spoke of spending Christmas alone with her two children while also being forced to self-isolate. 

“We live day by day. It is hard to plan anything in advance. Living in a tier four area during the school holidays is not at all dissimilar to the lockdowns,” Aurora wrote. 

“This was the first Christmas Day spent alone as a family unit of three in as many years, having had to decline Christmas dinner with my parents, who are vulnerable. 

“As a solo parent I’ve been properly isolated for the last week whilst I await Covid test results due to a constant cough.”

Victoria, a single parent and survivor of domestic violence, has also shared her experiences with the researchers. After moving on to Universal Credit during the pandemic, she received an advance payment to cover the five-week wait until her first payment. 

But as this had to be paid back, she said she wasn’t able to benefit from the £20 increase to Universal Credit introduced by the Government at the height of the outbreak. 

“Even with the £20 I’m worse off because of debts. It does nowt,” she said. “The £20 is null and void, gone before it arrives.”

In her most recent post, she said she may never benefit from the uplift because her advance payments finish in April, the month beyond which the Government has refused to commit to the increased payments. 

“I was looking forward to getting debt paid off and having a little extra money to pay towards [the] kids, who will soon need new shoes again [because] they didn’t stop growing in lockdown,” she wrote.

Victoria said she felt “powerless”, with no say over whether she could afford food and provide for her children.

“At the end of the day, I feel like my opinion on the money I receive isn’t important. Choices that affect my life, my children’s lives [and] the lives of millions around the country are made by a few privileged men with no real experience of what it’s like to be so dependant and food insecure,” she added. 

“I would love to see Johnson or Sunak try raising their families on what they think we can live on.” 

The researchers at Covid Realities hope the project will help ministers make the right decisions to support low-income families. 

Dr Patrick said the £20 increase to Universal Credit should be made permanent and urged the Government not to prolong the uncertainty being faced by low-income families.

She added: “We need to take the crisis and the recovery from the crisis as an opportunity to really build back better in a way that involves and includes everyone.

“This study focuses very much on parents and carers living with dependent children and there’s been neglect of recognising those additional costs that families are facing. 

“Families are still waiting for that decision on Universal Credit and they’re just left in even more insecurity and uncertainty about what’s going to happen.”

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