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Opinion

Is it too much to hope for an accessible safety net that protects us all from poverty?

For a future social security system to work, we must include the voices and lived experiences of people accessing it, writes Joanne Barker-Marsh, who took part in the Covid Realities research programme.

The dogs next door barked so much during the lockdowns, we thought we would go mad.

When the news arrived, that we were to be locked down due to a pandemic, we were already in crisis. Years of austerity and the benefit cap were affecting a huge number of us before the pandemic came.

That’s the reason I was in touch with Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and came to be included as a participant in the Covid Realities Project, a body of work researching and tracking the reality for families on a low income during the pandemic. York University, Birmingham University and CPAG are the core partners of this absolutely life changing project.

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I am a single mum on benefits, and financially, this is the worst place I have ever occupied as a human being and in particular, a mum. I already needed top-up benefits before the pandemic, despite working. I had a part-time job because I had little support with childcare and couldn’t sustain a full-time position. Not all of us receiving benefits are not working. What a poor situation that is, morally.

It makes you sick, poverty, your body suffers. Your relationship with food changes because you are eating only to stay alive. You turn the heating down, but no amount of clothing can stave off the agonising nature of cold. The way I wake in pain and hearing my young son say that he’s freezing, is a repetitive experience I will never forget. I became very ill during the pandemic and I have only just had Covid. It isn’t Covid that made me sick.

I didn’t choose poverty. None of us do. It is hard to face the painful truth that people are going hungry and freezing in one of the richest nations on Earth and that is set to get much worse in the coming months.

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My sister, Karen, died on the May 6, 2020. An inquest revealed that Covid and Sepsis had taken her life. She left behind three children. I honestly thought we would never recover.

The Covid Realities Project made such a difference to me then and still does now. People on the project lifted me in a way none of my close friends and family could.

I was grieving the loss of so much – financial, practical and emotional support, my job, my sister… I lost a thousand interactions a day when I needed them the most and the people I met in the project group, all held space for me. They listened without judgment, shared their own stories. We were so supported within the project, it reduced the isolation of lockdowns for all the project participants I think. We felt less alone at a very scary time.

I approached the project with caution. Why would anyone listen to me, to us? Who cares anyway… single mums, foreigners, loser dads (not my words) – we are battered when we are in need by that societal requirement for a ‘palatable’ vision of poverty.

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Through diary entries, monthly meetings, zine and writing workshops and more, we navigated this unprecedented time together and shared visions for a fairer future.

So many people are struggling now as prices soar. For a future social security system to work, we must include the voices and lived experiences of people accessing it. As it stands it is a degrading and at times impenetrable service within which we are poorly judged. Benefit payments are too low to meet people’s real-world basic needs and decisions are made by people we often cannot even speak to. Just a journal, faceless, thoughtless and inadequate.

We must move forward with parity in mind, with a benefit payment system reflecting the now alarmingly high cost of living. We must include the vulnerable and disabled in this. From the cradle to the grave every human being deserves dignity in times of need. I paid my taxes into a system because I wanted others to feel safe. Because I believe in a fairer society where if I earn more, I pay more, because I can. And because most of all, I should.

The Covid Realities Project has opened my view of what true poverty looks like – and we are many. Poverty is dehumanising, absolutely. It steals your peace and fogs your brain with stress and worry. But it is also multi-cultural and multi-layered, and human kindness has been shared amongst us when we needed it most.

Our hopes as a collective, are for a fairer social security system. Systemic change is needed as we address the significant financial hardship caused by Covid. Is it really too much to hope for a genuine, accessible safety net that protects us all from poverty?

Joanne Barker-Marsh took part in Covid Realities, a major research programme documenting what life is like for families with children on a low-income. Parents and carers complete diaries, respond to video questions and take part in virtual discussions about what needs to change and why.  Find out more, and get involved here.

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