Re: Impact of Coronavirus on poverty and food
It was good to talk on the phone earlier this week, and to briefly discuss our ongoing research project: COVID-19 and Families on a Low Income: Poverty in the pandemic. As promised, I wanted to write to you to briefly outline the project we are conducting, and the evidence we hope to generate. I also wanted to share some early insight we have about the experiences of people on a low-income during the pandemic. Note that this insight is taken both from the COVID-19 specific project, but also from an ongoing research project I lead looking at experiences of Universal Credit in Northern Ireland.
In case it is helpful, I am attaching a project summary about the COVID-19 project (which is funded by the Nuffield Foundation) as well as a series of reports, the Mind the Gap briefing papers which we have published through this project in partnership with CPAG. These reports are based on contacts from welfare rights advisers, and flag issues with how the social security system is responding to the pandemic.
Summary of COVID-19 project
The project that is currently underway will run from April 2020 until September 2021. It is seeking to document experiences of low-income families during the pandemic, as well as exploring how social security policy changes and is changed by the crisis and the government’s response. We are adopting a range of methodologies; but a key strand will be online, participatory research where parents and carers who are themselves experiencing poverty can share and document their experiences, and discuss where they feel policy change is most urgently needed. Linked to this, we are also aggregating a number of ongoing research projects, with a broad interest in poverty, to synthesise findings and provide a collective space for the ethical thinking through of the challenges as well as the possibilities and need for research on poverty during this crisis.
Relevant emergent findings
As yet, the findings from the COVID-19 project are mainly those contained in the series of Mind the Gap briefings, which I am enclosing along with the letter. At present, we are currently in the process of pulling together some evidence drawn from exploratory data generation with a small number of parents living in poverty. But we are not yet at a stage to formally share these findings.
The things, however, that I did want to highlight are:
i) Normal budgetary practices challenged by lockdown
People living in poverty have well-established practices for managing on a very low income in order to ‘get by’. These include – for example – shopping several times a week and in several shops to get best deals, and to benefit from ‘reduced to clear offers’. The constraints of lockdown and hard social distancing make these budgetary strategies impossible, and so inevitably increase the costs of weekly shopping at the same time as fuel costs are also increasing because of the demands of being at home all day and every day.
These new pressures are highlighted by Deirdre McCausland, a Universal Credit recipient living in Northern Ireland:
I used to go to two or three shops several times a week to seek out the best prices, making sure I got the most out of my money. I can’t do that anymore, which is making budgeting harder than ever. Plus, the food banks that I used to rely on are now reserved for the most vulnerable. On top of that, the children being at home means extra expenses: I need more food, more gas and electric, with them being in and at home 24, 7, and I want to get them little things to keep them entertained. But I just don’t have the money for it.
(From UC in Northern Ireland study – Patrick, R & Simpson, M (2020, forthcoming)
ii) Informal and charitable routes to food interrupted
Linked to this, lockdown has also put an immediate stop on mechanisms that people in poverty often use to get access to food when they are struggling to feed themselves and their families. These include, for example, being fed by family members, and/or making use of food banks and charitable forms of emergency food provision. Going to your mum’s house to have tea is of course not currently possible, and this is stretching limited budgetary resources of affected individuals yet further, who are also finding that food banks are being reserved for especially vulnerable populations, and so – in some cases are not open to them.
At the same time, however, charitable forms of food support continue to play a vital role for some people, especially those who have additional vulnerabilities but who are perhaps not supported through the established routes:
Monday is the day that my 15 yo & I plus…dog go to…to pick up our weekly freegan box from…a charity dedicated to saving perfectly edible food from landfill. They have been my lifeline during the lockdown - I find it difficult to queue at supermarkets &, even though I am in chronic pain, have mobility issues & an incurable degenerative spinal cord condition, I am not considered a “vulnerable” enough person to access any special “shopping hours” because I haven't made it onto the government’s list.
(Steph, COVID-19, Nuffield project)
iii) Additional support through the social security system is not getting to everyone
The additional support through the social security system, although welcome, is incomplete and poorly designed. Especially problematic here is the persistence with collecting back Universal Credit advance payments, which then reduces the amount of benefits households received. Similarly, the retention of the two-child limit and benefit cap, means that families who desperately need additional help are not getting it; and this especially applies to the increase in the standard allowance, which will be of no benefit to families already capped. These families (disproportionately likely to be larger families and/or single parents families) are also facing additional pressures during the pandemic due to their household composition; and so it is particularly worrying that there are these restrictions on the financial support made available to them. At the same time, however, people did welcome some of the additional support and changes made to Universal Credit; for example, the removal of the minimum income floor for Universal Credit was mentioned as especially helpful and as a form of support that should be continued.
iv) The persistence of in-work poverty
We have not analysed our emerging evidence from the COVID-19 project, but there is early data being generated to show how people who were already struggling with in-work poverty are struggling yet further as additional shifts dry up, and people struggle to manage on a reduced income. As Anna explains:
I currently work in a school with pupils with additional needs, a day nursery in the school holidays alongside a large farm shop/cafe weekends and any spare days. I have not been able to do any extra shifts like I would normally do as the latter two have been shut. I have used a food bank four times and welled up with gratitude with the lady running it and her kindness, just on times when I had say 70p left and nothing left.
(COVID-19, Nuffield project)
v) Fears about the future
In your original email, you asked about our expectations about the future and the projected future impact of COVID-19 on poverty and access to food. While we are not yet able to make these predictions it is important to stress that people in the research we are conducting are worrying about the future and what it will bring for them in terms of both their financial management and resources, but also in terms of their health:
I am terrified to think that this could continue. I myself as a single mum with two children, one which has severe special needs cannot take a lot more of lock down. Mentally, physically and emotionally. I need a break. I need to sleep and some adult conversation. My children need their routine back. They miss school and their family and friends. I dread a second wave of this virus and if it does occur I think I might have to move home with my parents. For emotional and financially help and support.
(COVID-19, Nuffield project)
I'm worried about my job. The high street isn't going to be the same. Even if my shop reopens, it may end up shutting if it doesn't make enough money. We are used to long queues at the till, not possible if only a few customers are allowed in at once. We are worried that so many people will be unemployed, it will be very hard to get any work.
(COVID-19, Nuffield project)
At this stage, I am afraid that it is difficult for us to comment further, and to provide further evidence. But we hope to have more to share on the project, and its findings soon.
I will look forward to reading the report in due course, and do come back to me if you require any additional information.
Dr Ruth Patrick
Lecturer in Social Policy & Social Work, University of York
28 May 2020