3: Families navigating Universal Credit in the COVID-19 pandemic

Couples Managing Work, Money, and Care under the Shifting Landscape of Universal Credit is a three-year longitudinal, qualitative research study carried out in a collaboration between the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath and the University of Oxford. The research investigated how low-income couples, both with and without children, unemployed and employed, managed work and care arrangements, household finances, and gender roles and relations while claiming Universal Credit. Drawing on two phases of interviews conducted in 2018/19 and 2020, this chapter explores the experiences of two families, one living in England and the other in Scotland; one with two working parents by 2020, and the other with neither in employment. We draw on a total of five individual and joint interviews with each couple: individual, face-to-face interviews with each of the partners, and a joint interview, all carried out in 2018, together with a telephone interview (due to COVID-19 restrictions) with each partner in September 2020. Case summaries explore how each family fared during this two-year period of claiming Universal Credit, examining the extent to and ways in which the various emergency measures put in place by the Government to mitigate the worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may have helped them.


Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, low-income families in the UK had borne the brunt of the decade-long austerity-driven cuts to social security, with analyses showing rising levels of child poverty and in-work poverty in households with children (Hood and Waters, 2017). Our longitudinal, qualitative research, part of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded project, Couples Balancing Work, Money and Care: Exploring the Shifting Landscape under Universal Credit (ESRC ES/R004811/1), charted the lived experience of couples and families claiming Universal Credit (UC) as they juggled work, money, and care. Two waves of interviews were conducted, two years apart, between 2018/19 and 2020. Wave one comprised 123 individual and joint face-to-face interviews with 90 UC claimants in 53 households, in four areas in England and Scotland. Thirty-nine households had dependent children (30 couples and nine lone parents) and all but one had a child or children under the age of 12. For 28 families, this included at least one pre-school-aged child.

In 2018/19, when we conducted our first wave of interviews, most working-age benefits had not increased in real terms for almost a decade. Child Benefit had been subject to freezes and below inflation uprating since 2011. Over the same period, financial help with housing costs had been decreasing, with many private renters facing a rent shortfall despite qualifying for help (Shelter, 2020). Most benefit recipients are also now expected to contribute towards council tax. After almost a decade of social security cuts, rising living costs, and weak earnings growth, many of the families in our research were struggling to manage (Griffiths et al, 2020). Then came COVID-19.

The wave two interviews with 63 participants1 took place in September and October 2020. In addition to examining decisions around work and care, interviews explored how well individuals and families were managing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, including whether and how UC, and the Government’s emergency measures, were helping to support and sustain them through these difficult times. We were also interested to explore whether claimants in Scotland fared any better or felt more supported than those in England. Though UC policy remains largely in the hands of the Westminster Government,2 Scotland passed a Child Poverty (Scotland) Act in 2017 and additional cash payments and support have been introduced for families. A new Social Security Agency has also been established and a Charter for benefit recipients is grounded on principles of dignity and respect.

Social security support measures during the pandemic

As part of a wider package of emergency measures put in place by the Government to support household incomes,3 a £20 per week uplift in the standard allowance of UC, alongside a £20 increase in the basic weekly rate of Working Tax Credit (WTC), was announced by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in the Spring 2020 Budget. At the same time, the Government lifted the freeze on working-age benefits, with an uprating of 1.7 per cent, the first since 2015. Financial help with private sector rental costs was also realigned more closely with local rent levels, and funding was provided to local authorities for further discretionary support. The £20 weekly uplift, in addition to the uprating, meant that from April 2020 the UC standard allowance for couples (aged over 25) rose from £498.89 to £594.04 per month, and for single people (aged over 25) rose from £317.82 to £409.89 per month. Taken together, these measures effectively reversed the cuts and freezes to working-age benefits enacted during the previous decade (Brewer and Handscomb, 2020).

But it is not just benefit rates that are important. The regulations, systems, and procedures for determining conditionality in UC, and for assessing and calculating the award, are central to options and decisions about employment, and to the amount of money claimants are entitled to and ultimately get paid each month. For UC claimants, the £20 weekly increase in the standard allowance was accompanied by a suspension of conditionality for claimants in the intensive work search group and a pause in the recovery of benefit over-payments and Social Fund loans deducted from a claimant’s UC payment. However, these measures were time-limited. The uplift was scheduled to end in March 2021, while the suspension of certain deductions and work conditionality elements lasted only until the end of June 2020. Nor did the £20 uplift apply to legacy or other benefits. Also notable was the lack of any specific social security help targeted at families with children. The £20 per week uplift to the UC standard allowance was a flat-rate amount given regardless of the presence or number of children in the household (or whether adults were single or in a couple). Moreover, money intended for children is unprotected in UC due to the integrated nature of the payment. No COVID-19-related uplift applied to Child Tax Credit, Child Benefit, or the child element of UC.

In the Spring 2021 Budget, the Government announced that it would extend the uplift in UC by six months, until 30 September 2021. Recipients of WTC would instead receive a one-off lump sum payment of £500. Having reiterated throughout the pandemic that the £20 increase was always intended as a temporary emergency measure, in July 2021 the Government confirmed that the uplift would be phased out from the end of September 2021.

Reducing cash benefits for families with children

The lack of any additional cash benefit provision directed at children during the pandemic reflects a decade-long trend during which financial help for families has gradually been eroded from what some considered to be its high water mark (Bradshaw and Main, 2016), with the enactment of the Child Poverty Act 2010.4 Successive Labour Governments in office from 1997 to 2010 made child poverty a major focus of concern (Tucker, 2020), resulting in 600,000 children being lifted out of poverty (Department for Work and Pensions [DWP], 2008). With the advent of the Coalition Government in 2010, child poverty reduction targets were abandoned and the cross-departmental Child Poverty Unit was disbanded. The political choices of successive Coalition and Conservative Governments in tackling the financial crisis of 2008 onwards also meant that families became increasingly targeted for cuts.5 Reflecting the notion that ‘work is the best route out of poverty’, support for low-income households increasingly moved towards fiscal and employment measures targeted at people in work.

In January 2013, the Government abolished universality in the only solely child-contingent payment in UK social security – Child Benefit – by imposing an additional tax charge where a parent has annual earnings above £50,000. In April 2017, the family element was removed in UC and the two-child limit to UC and Child Tax Credits was introduced. This followed the lowering of the household benefit cap in 2016 (first introduced in 2013). Justified with regard to the need to ensure fairness for working households, the benefit cap imposes a ceiling on the total amount of benefits payable to working-age claimants with no earnings (with certain exceptions).6 Driven by the unprecedented increase in UC claimants as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of households affected by the benefit cap hit a record 230,000 households in May 2020, more than four -fifths of whom were families with children (DWP, 2021). The two-child limit removes all means-tested support for a third and any subsequent children born after April 2017 (with a few exceptions). In 2020, 250,000 families were affected by the two-child limit (HMRC and DWP, 2020). However, projections by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) indicate that, by 2025, the number of families affected by the two-child limit could rise to 500,000 (Joyce and Waters, 2019).

The various freezes and changes to benefit eligibility meant that, between 2010 and 2020, spending on child-contingent benefits fell by £10 billion – or by a quarter for each child – outweighing the positive impact of a higher national minimum wage and increases in personal tax allowances (Cooper and Hills, 2021). Analysis by the Resolution Foundation (before the decision to reduce the taper rate and increase the work allowance) indicated that removal of the £20 uplift could lead to a further 1.2 million people (of whom 400,000 were children) falling into relative poverty,7 the biggest year-on-year rise in poverty rates since the 1980s, undoing virtually all the work done to reduce child poverty from 1997 to 2010 (Brewer et al, 2021). However, this creeping policy of transferring ever-greater levels of responsibility and risk for raising children onto parents has largely gone unnoticed outside academia and the third sector.

The experience of claiming Universal Credit before and after COVID-19

Against this background, we explore the experiences of two families, one living in England, the other in Scotland; one with two working parents by 2020, and the other with neither in employment. We draw on a total of five interviews conducted with each couple: face-to-face, individual, and joint interviews with the partners in late 2018; and a telephone interview with each partner in September 2020. In 2020, the families had been claiming Universal Credit continuously for about five years. These couples were selected because many of the issues their cases raise reflect those of the wider sample. They tell their stories about their experience of claiming UC before and after the pandemic, largely in their own words. To protect their identities, participants’ names and some other details have been changed.

Holly and Ralph

Holly and Ralph, an unemployed married couple in their early 30s, live in a three-bedroomed, rented council house on a Scottish housing estate. In 2018, they have two children aged five and two. Holly suffers from anxiety and depression and rarely leaves the house. As the nominated ‘lead carer’, Holly is in the ‘work preparation’ conditionality group for Universal Credit, meaning she must take active steps to prepare for a return to work when her youngest child reaches the age of five. However, a recent attempt at some unpaid work experience seriously dented her confidence when she was investigated for benefit fraud:

‘Last year I was helping a friend round at the local hairdressers … If she was busy with a client, I’d answer the phone, didn’t get paid anything for it … It was just to get me out the house and get my confidence up, to try and get me to be able to go into work. There was a malicious phone call made to the benefits … saying I was working.’ [She sighs] ‘I would love to go back to the way it was … in the sixties … you know, the woman brought the kids up … Ideally I would want my husband to be out working full time and I want to be the stay at home parent.’

But Ralph finds regular work hard to come by. His last job, as a warehouse stacker, was almost a year ago. This was the latest in a long line of temporary agency jobs that have never lasted more than a few months, in spite of the promise of being taken on permanently. “What I wanted at the time [was] full-time work [but with agency work] you get a phone call saying … you’re not wanted … or there’s a text … saying you’re not wanted the next week … so you’re back to square one again.” Working long shifts, he also missed spending time with his children. “You were out at five in the morning … and back for ten o’clock at night … So both were in their bed when I left and both of them were in their beds when I came home.” Agency work nevertheless gave the family just enough money to live on. “When I was working … we always had cash, always had food, always had gas and leccy [electricity], we always had clothes on our back … if I had my way, the wee one would be at nursery and I’d be working, but unfortunately it doesn’t quite work out that way.”

Difficulties in claiming UC, before any help was available, meant that the first payment was delayed longer than it should have been. Holly explained, “I don’t have any internet in the house … so you’re phoning up, you’re waiting in a queue … by the time they’ve spoke to you they’re … saying, we’re going to have to scrap it and you need to start again”. With no income to live on for almost two months, they were forced to turn to food banks and local welfare charities. “I don’t like to admit when I need help but … I was crying all the time … and [the health visitor]… gave me numbers … [for] food banks and there’s a charity they’ll [top up] your gas and electricity cards.” The offer of a UC advance loan, though, was turned down. “We’re better off not going down that line because we need to pay it back and it would get us in more debt and we would struggle more than what we are.”

When the UC is finally awarded, deductions of £75 per month are taken to repay council tax and rent arrears. Thinking it will help, they opt to change the UC payment to twice monthly, as claimants in Scotland have the option to.8 But this interferes with their rent payment cycle, so they switch back to a monthly payment. Money struggles are taking their toll on Holly’s mental health and on the couple’s relationship:

‘My depression’s got really bad … [the children are] used to going and getting a packet of biscuits at the shop … and we can’t do that any more … We have major arguments … over what we’re going to get, when we’re going to get it … so it has major issues in the relationship.’

Two years later, in 2020, Holly’s mental health has not improved and she has been assessed as having limited capability for work, for which the couple receive an extra amount of Universal Credit. Ralph becomes her official carer and is awarded Carer’s Allowance. It makes a big difference to the family’s finances, which is much needed because there has been a new addition to the family – a third child – for whom the family receive no extra Universal Credit. “It was a shock,” Holly says. “I knew that I wouldn’t be entitled to [any extra help] … but from my religion, an abortion is out of the question.” Ralph says that they are not entitled to Child Benefit for the new baby. This is clearly a misunderstanding, but no one has informed him of this. “I was always told that it was … capped at two.” Child Benefit is separate from UC and not subject to the two-child limit, I tell him. “I never knew about that,” he says. Yet the couple visited the Jobcentre to present the baby’s birth certificate. Did no one mention claiming Child Benefit? “Nobody’s said anything about it, no.”

With no additional UC money for the new baby, making ends meet is a constant struggle. “It is hard,” Holly says. “My other children have had to give up a lot so that we could provide for [baby] … we’ve had to use a food bank quite often.” An unexpected reprieve is that, with a third child, the abolition of the spare room subsidy (‘bedroom tax’) no longer applies and they are entitled to increased financial help with their housing costs. “My rent got paid – an extra £100 a month … because now we’re entitled to three bedrooms.” It makes a big difference. Living in Scotland, the family is also entitled to extra help for the new baby:

‘We got … £350 and that paid for a cot, pram … I also got the Baby Box, which was a great help … digital thermometer … clothing for zero to three months … three to six months and six to nine months … a comfort blanket … a changing mat … teething rings … nappies … cream … baby books.’

They are also awarded a small discretionary local authority grant on account of Holly’s requirement to shield during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By helping to boost their regular household income, the £20 per week uplift in UC has been a lifeline. “Now I’ve got [third baby], that £20 a week helps towards getting his clothes and food for him.” Even so, the extra money is not enough to compensate for the ongoing loss of income due to the two-child limit, or the low level of income on which the family must live. The imminent loss of the £20 UC uplift is an additional source of anxiety. “Once that’s away, I’m going to be stuck with what I had before and I think I’d struggle a lot more.”

Kate and Pete

Kate and Pete are in their 40s, married, and in 2018 have two children living at home, aged ten and 11. The family lives in a three-bedroomed, socially rented house in the North West of England. Pete is unemployed and has not worked for seven years following a bout of meningitis. He is the nominated lead carer and, with both children at school, he must job search for 20 hours per week. Kate works part time as a cleaner and is studying for a teaching degree. She also manages the household finances. “We’ve been looking to open a bank account for [Pete],” Kate says, “but he’s got no photographic ID.” With the responsibility for working, studying, and household budgeting, Kate was feeling the strain.

Two years later, in 2020, Kate has graduated but she is still working part time in the same job. I ask why she is not teaching or working full time. During the lockdown, their youngest child developed mental health issues, she says:

‘He’s [got] severe behavioural issues and anxiety … so with trying to deal with that as well as everything else, it was just far too much … UCs are so unreliable … I was trying to [work] and study and do everything else in between and it was just far too much … I felt like I was having a breakdown … we didn’t know where we stood with UC from one month to the next.’

To help share the load, Pete got a job and is now also employed as a part-time cleaner. Both are employed on zero-hours contracts at the national living wage of £8.72 per hour. Pete typically works 24 hours per week and Kate 15 hours, spread across five weekdays. “[Pete] does part-time hours, I do part-time hours, so one of us are always here with the children when they’re at home.”

During the first COVID-19 lockdown, the couple were briefly furloughed but, as key workers, resumed working after two weeks of quarantine. Home-schooling has added to Kate’s workload:

‘It was just a nightmare of juggling! Our boss was really understanding … he changed hours so we could fit the kids in that one of us were here but … [Pete’s] … not really up to date with the schooling and … he’s not very good on the laptop, so it was me, because … I’ve done my studies and I’m up to date with everything.’

Though both parents now work, their financial situation has only marginally improved. They are regularly offered additional hours; but earning more on UC is a double-edged sword, giving them extra money in the month it is earned, followed by a drop in income the next. “You’re not getting any benefit really … You’re working to make your life better but on the other hand, when the UCs come in, you’re not really that much better off … It’s always a worry the next month … if we’ve got enough money to live on.” The DWP suggests that claimants should put money aside when earnings increase to compensate for the reduced payment of UC the following month. When money is tight, this is difficult enough, but when extra earnings are used to pay for a costly or unexpected item, this strategy does not work. Washing the children’s clothes much more frequently than before the pandemic, Kate has been obliged to buy an additional set of school uniforms. “Last month we had to work overtime to pay for the children’s school uniforms, and then this month UCs are [only] paying us £300 …We were left with about £700 after we’d paid our rent.”

This reduction in UC entitlement as earnings rise has made the couple wary of working any longer than is necessary to meet the family’s immediate needs. “We work overtime … to get something we need,” Kate explains. “If we’re doing overtime, [it’s] for a reason … because we need to pay for something, as in, like, uniforms, which are very expensive. [The] council don’t provide any help towards uniforms.” Not being able to reliably predict by how much the UC payment will vary is an added complication. When their earnings increase, so does the amount taken in deductions. “This month we’ve only earned £400 more than last month, but we’re only getting £300 [from UC] instead of £1,100.” Not knowing how much UC they will get until a week before the payment compounds the difficulties. “[They] don’t put it up on the computer till, like, a week before how much you’re going to get, so we don’t know where we stand with that till, like, seven days before.”

Working regular extra hours also means they lose out on a budgeting loan they would otherwise have been eligible for. “They do, like, an advance payment for people … struggling with, like, washing machines, uniforms … but because we actually earn over £3,600 between [us] over six months, we’re not entitled to that help.” Working more hours also reduces eligibility for other means-tested help. “We’re not entitled to [help with prescription charges] at the minute because we earned over the amount last month.” Kate says:

‘My glasses are broke, so I’m waiting till next month to be able to go to the optician’s because … after we’ve paid our rent, council tax, food, there’s no way I can go and afford a pair of glasses, so I’m waiting till next month when I’ll be able to get free prescriptions again to get my glasses.’

Life was a lot easier on tax credits, she says, when entitlement and payments were fixed for a year:

‘[With tax credits] I got an NHS exempt card that I had for the 12 months … and it never changed from one month to the next … [With] tax credits … you were never in this position unless you had a drastic change in circumstances … You knew what you were getting, you could budget … Having a fixed monthly payment for a year was much easier to manage … if you did overtime one month … it would work out over the year.’

Kate has another bugbear: automated deductions taken without notification. “We had Social Fund loans … many years ago, and they’ve taken it direct out of our UC … but they stopped it during the pandemic … and then they never contacted us to let us know it was restarting again … there was nothing, they just started taking it again.” She tries, but fails, to stop the deduction:

‘I did contact UC on my journal and it was two days later I got a message back saying, we can’t deal with this, it’s debt management. So then I contacted debt management and it took me 50-odd minutes to get through … He said … “We can reduce for next month but we can’t do anything about this month’s payment because it’s already gone through” … He wasn’t very sympathetic … He just said, “No, it’s too late, sorry” … So they’ve taken £1989 out … It’s very hard … We’ve been to a food bank this month … it’s just a nightmare.’

Are there any aspects of Universal Credit that work well for them? Kate says:

‘I like the way that they know our earnings … that is the positive side of it, whereas with tax credits we had to do that annual review … every year we had to put our earnings in off our P60 … We never experienced [over-payments] because we always declared it. But whereas UC, they know what we’ve earned direct by our employer, what he put through to the Inland Revenue … I think that’s the only good thing about UC!’

And the worst thing? Without hesitation, she says, “The inconsistency in payments … I don’t think you can budget properly with UC … with not knowing what we’re going to get from one month to the next.” Was she aware that there had been a temporary £20 weekly uplift in the UC standard allowance? No, she replies. It is money they sorely need, but there appears to have been no increase in their payment. Reflecting on why, she says, “I think it might be because they’re that inconsistent anyway that I wouldn’t know … We never get the same payment.”

I ask what would help to improve their situation. Both would like better-paid jobs but do not have the time or support needed to secure this. Pete tells me that his employer will not commit to giving him more than 24 hours per week. Full-time jobs are scarce and well-paid jobs rarer still. He says, “I’d love a full-time job … we’re bringing home … just over £1,000 a month … I’d like to get us out of this rut … I’d love to be off UC.” Work coaches are meant to deliver tailored help that promotes employment, is responsive to local labour markets, and challenges behaviours around work. Already working, Kate and Pete do not need challenging; but their jobs are part time and poorly paid. In the ‘light touch’ group,10 they had little or no contact with a work coach even before the pandemic, so the promise of personalised support has a hollow ring. Kate told me, “My husband would like the extra support of courses … My son, he’s [unemployed] … and they offer him all kinds, whereas because we’ve gone into light touch, it’s like [Pete’s] been forgotten.”

Before Pete started his job, his work coach mandated him to attend a full-time training course. “They put me on a forklift course … I [was] out the house for a week and then it [was] quite difficult for [my wife] to go to work … [The course] was, like, full time … I’d be out six and a half, seven hours.” He got his forklift truck driving licence, but a job failed to materialise. “Because the dole was putting people on forklift licences … when you went for a forklift job, there was, like, 30 people going for the same job because they’ve all got forklift licences.” His licence had since expired. He says, “They’re not very helpful at all … they never have been, to be honest … I was out of work for a long time and … they’ve never, ever been any help really. [Now] I’m working, they don’t ask me for nothing.” He swallows hard. This is a man struggling to maintain his dignity. “[Last month] … we had to go to food bank … We’re working and we shouldn’t have to do that.” He says:

‘It’s not fair on the kids … it’s just ongoing, because the kids are at that age now where … they want money for drinks and bags of crisps … and sometimes we can’t give it them and it makes us feel … we’re failing. I’d like to have a bit of extra money … to get the kids on holiday once.’

His voice chokes with emotion. “I’m usually the one that doesn’t worry, but … it’s been starting getting to me. I’m actually getting quite upset about it now.” He’s not angry, just worn down; they both are, but there is a sense of resignation.

Policy reflections

Our research suggests that, for both working and non-working claimants, getting UC has done little to address the low level of household income and loss of support many families have experienced over the past decade through swingeing cuts in benefits and child-contingent forms of help. Though the £20 uplift has been a lifeline for the poorest families reliant on UC as their main source of income, its withdrawal in September 2021 means benefit rates will return to their lowest real terms level for three decades (Brewer and Handscomb, 2021). For parents in low-paid, poor-quality, part-time work, through generating income volatility and uncertainty, the design of UC can serve to exacerbate financial insecurity. In this context, it is important to recognise that UC is but one of a number of social security measures with the potential to increase household incomes and reduce poverty. Paid to the main carer and in full for the majority of families, Child Benefit is not subject to the problems associated with monthly means testing in UC, nor affected by the two-child limit or benefit cap. A substantial increase in Child Benefit could therefore be a much more effective way of getting extra money directly into the pockets of more of the poorest families.



Interviews were conducted by telephone rather than face-to-face due to COVID-19 restrictions.


The devolved nations have some limited flexibilities regarding alternative payment arrangements (APAs). For example, UC claimants in Scotland can choose to have their housing element paid direct to their landlord, and to have the award paid twice a month. In Northern Ireland, direct payments to landlords and twice monthly payments are the default payment arrangement. In England, requests for APAs are assessed on a case-by-case basis and only granted in exceptional circumstances.


These included the Coronavirus Job Retention (furlough) Scheme and the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS), and changes to Statutory Sick Pay.


The Child Poverty Act 2010 enshrined child poverty reduction targets in law (Kennedy, 2014).


See Reader and Andersen, Chapter 7 in this collection.


The benefit cap now amounts to £23,000 per annum for couples and single parents who live in Greater London and £20,000 per annum for those who live outside Greater London (or £15,410 and £13,400 respectively for single people).


Relative poverty is defined as those living in a household with less than 60 per cent of median equivalised disposable household income after housing costs.


Claimants in England can request to have UC paid more frequently, but our research showed that most were turned down (Griffiths et al, 2020).


This amount suggests that the UC award was reduced by the maximum deduction permitted at the time: 40 per cent of the standard allowance. The maximum has since been reduced to 25 per cent.


‘Light Touch’ claimants are typically working part time with earnings at or close to the national minimum/living wage. They generally have less work conditionality and reduced contact with a work coach.


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