11: “Together we are making a difference”: participatory research with families living on a low income during the pandemic

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The Covid Realities project has been working alongside parents and carers since June 2020 to understand the experiences of and challenges faced by families living on a low income during the pandemic. In this chapter, we will explore how through diary entries, discussion groups, and engaging with online video questions, parents and carers have shared experiences and discussed recommendations for policy change. In order to truly build back better, we emphasise how those in power need to listen to and engage with the expertise that comes from – and can only come from – lived experience. Who is included and who is excluded from policy discussions happening now will have a lasting impact on the world that emerges from the pandemic.


Almost as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic began to grip the UK, indications of its unequal impacts started to appear. Early evidence highlighted elevated morbidity and mortality from the virus in ethnically minoritised groups, elevated risks and exposure for keyworkers, and patterns of increased financial insecurity as a result of people’s employment status, age, housing, income, and occupation (Institute for Fiscal Studies [IFS], 2020a; Judge and Rahman, 2020; Norman, 2020; Office for National Statistics [ONS], 2020; Public Health England [PHE], 2020). Once home schooling began, the impact on children – and their futures – quickly became apparent, as access to educational tools and resources fell along established social lines (Child Poverty Action Group [CPAG], 2020; Education Endowment Foundation, 2020). It was clear that ‘the new normal’ wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated and exposed pre-existing inequalities (IFS, 2020b; Marmot et al, 2020) and was starting to affect people in greater numbers than before. As economic shocks and uncertainty took hold, millions more people turned to the social security system for support – in just under a year (March 2020 to January 2021), for example, the number of Universal Credit (UC) claimants doubled (Department for Work and Pensions [DWP], 2021).

These troubling new social conditions emerged as Government discourse presented a more egalitarian view: that COVID-19 was a great leveller; that, like austerity, ‘we are all in this together’ (Nolan, 2021). It was this gap between rhetoric and reality that spurred the creation of the Covid Realities research programme. Establishing a partnership between the Universities of York and Birmingham, and working closely with the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), Covid Realities sought to develop a living archive of the experiences of families living on a low income during the pandemic. A driving goal has been to understand what needs to change, and why, and to ensure that families living on a low income have a say in shaping the policies that affect them.

The mainstay of Covid Realities is a website, http://covidrealities.org. Here, parents can sign into a secure personal dashboard to write diary entries or answer themed ‘Big Questions of the Week’ – a weekly question posed by a member of the research team, a participant, or a guest from an external organisation. Monthly online discussion groups and arts-based activities such as zine-making provide more interactive opportunities for engagement. In the 12 months from June 2020, 172 parents from across the UK signed up, with 120 logging at least one diary entry, and 47 posting ten or more. Some participants only posted one-word or one-sentence entries, while our most prolific diarist accounted for just over a quarter of the 2,526 entries to July 2021, and a second accounted for just under a quarter of the 294,499 submitted words. Of those who entered demographic details, 93 per cent were female and 91 per cent White British1 with an average age of 38.7 years old (range: 19–58). Over a third were in work, with a quarter unable to work due to disability. Slightly over half received UC, and 46 per cent of households in the sample had children who were eligible for free school meals.

Entries were coded through NVivo software using both inductive and deductive themes. Multiple iterations of pilot coding, team discussion, and refinement led to an agreed final framework. The sections that follow provide illustrative findings from four dominant and interconnected themes: the struggle to get by; the inadequacy of social security; the additional pressures of lockdown; and the impact of social security and poverty on parents’ mental health. These themes are explored further in case studies of two participants. We conclude with participant-informed recommendations for policy change.

Key themes

Getting by

Within their diaries, families described extensive budgeting practices such as shopping carefully for reduced or lower-priced items; avoiding luxuries; planning and replanning monthly spends; buying gift cards each month where possible to save for Christmas, and calculating everything to the last penny. Still, families consistently struggled to get by, with every cost eating into social security payments that were inadequate to begin with. Coming into the pandemic, payment levels for key benefits such as UC and Employment Support Allowance were at least 9 per cent lower than they should have been if uprated according to the Consumer Price Index since 2010 (Brien et al, 2021) and the additional costs of lockdown pushed budgets to breaking point, as Erik describes:

‘The money I receive has not increased in several years … so [an increasing broadband bill] will mean even less food in the cupboard and a really tough time during the winter as I … will not be able to afford the cost of heating our home even for a short period of time each day.’ (Erik J, June 2020)

Meanwhile, as a result of restrictions, families were unable to employ some of their usual strategies to make tight budgets go further, such as visiting family and friends for meals or using charity shops to buy clothing and toys (Brewer and Patrick, 2021). With household finances already at – or beyond – their limit, there was no room for unavoidable additional expenses such as school uniforms and unpredictable costs such as car MOTs, as Alannah and Howie told us: “Anxious and financially broke, paying £310 pound for school uniform when I only receive £556 a month” (Alannah, September 2020). “[My car] is so neglected from [having] no spare cash … that it overheated in the emissions test and damaged the water pump – they wouldn’t let me drive it home” (Howie, February 2021). Families described accessing every available means of support – borrowing from family, using food banks, scouring local resources for additional support. Still, nutritious food and warm clothing were hard to sustain, and parents like Alex regularly went hungry: “Lying in bed. Tummy rumbling. Started to wait and see if daughter leaves food on plate and finish it off to save money. We finished her plate tonight” (November 2020). The struggles faced by Covid Realities families contrasted with the experiences of higher-income neighbours and acquaintances as stay-at-home rules and the rise of online engagement heightened and made social comparisons more visceral. For Gracie, her neighbours’ new hot tub emphasised how little she had:

‘I can’t even afford a paddling pool and it’s due to be 38 degrees tomorrow. My neighbours just bought a hot tub. I honestly want the thing to break in its first week. Sounds awful but I am sick to death of seeing and hearing everyone else having a marvellous time.’ (August 2020)

While for Nicole’s daughter, home learning drove home their poverty: “Dance teacher showing all the individual dancers videos of them dancing at home. My daughter is upset and embarrassed about our flat. The others have lovely big homes and beautiful show home furniture” (February 2021). Television and social media made comparisons still more painful, with Scotland’s Home of the Year and “photos of sledging and snowboarding kids” driving home for Nicole that “[h]aving a decent income really makes a difference”. Evidence from Covid Realities parents and carers highlighted not only the detrimental material impact of trying to get by on a low income, but also the psychosocial effects. Poverty is stigmatising, and shame and embarrassment about social status is detrimental to wellbeing and self-esteem (Ridge, 2009; Corrigan et al, 2011; Bell, 2012). New ways of living and interacting during the pandemic may have intensified experiences of stigma and inequality.

Social security

For many Covid Realities participants, the pressures of getting by were rooted in the structure and processes of the social security system. Those who had moved on to UC both before and during the pandemic – over half of our participants – faced profound difficulties in managing the five-week ‘initial assessment period’, during which they received no income. Charlie, for example, spoke of how he was driven to use a food bank for the first time: “We used a food bank because of splitting from my wife … and going from Child Tax Credits over to Universal Credit. And the six-week delay had a massive, massive impact and knock on with no money for six weeks coming in” (May 2021). This experience is not uncommon. Evidence suggests that in the 12 months after UC is rolled out in an area, there is on average a 30 per cent increase in referrals to Trussell Trust food banks (The Trussell Trust, 2019) and this statistic does not include independent food aid providers, so could represent an underestimation of the number of people in need of emergency food aid while awaiting their first UC payment.

Advance payments are available to provide financial support until first payments arrive, however these must be paid back over the following months, meaning that subsequent payments will be lower. Lexie spoke about how in order to avoid this debt, she and her family had to survive on just their Child Benefit payments each week:

‘We went nearly 9 weeks trying to survive as a family of six on £60 per week, I tried desperately not to get into debt … Luckily [the village school] were happy to start my children on free school meals, it was a little bit of relief knowing they would get at least one decent meal a day.’ (January 2021)

While some finance companies provided payment holidays, and homeowners were able to take advantage of mortgage holidays to weather the financial difficulties caused by COVID-19, following a pause in the first few months of the pandemic the Government has continued to deduct debt repayments (for advances and other debts such as housing arrears) throughout the past year, leading to further hardship (see also Chapters 1 and 3). Evidence suggests in August 2020 that 41 per cent (1.85 million) of households on UC were subject to some form of debt deduction, and this rose to two thirds (63 per cent) of those who had started claiming in the first few months of the pandemic (Patrick and Lee, 2021).

Sometimes, parents transferred to UC because of erroneous advice to do so at the beginning of the pandemic (later revised). Ted reported he was told that he would retain his Child and Working Tax Credits (WTC) – and so switched to UC, only to be face unmanageable debt: “I was worried at the amount they deducted this month (£192 which leaves £864) … They said … at the time of accepting it I said I could afford [repayments], I pointed out that at the time of taking that advance … no one had told me the legacy [benefits] would stop” (October 2020). Meanwhile, policies such as the benefit cap continued throughout the pandemic, adding further pressure to households who already had little flexibility in monthly budgets. Aurora explains how the benefit cap impacted upon her and her family: “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” (October 2020). The £20 uplift applied to WTC and UC in April 2020 provided a welcome boost to households, though frequently served only to cover pre-existing deficits in monthly budgets. A series of temporary extensions to the uplift generated uncertainty among those households who received this and at the time of writing, the uplift will stop altogether in October 2021. Many Covid Realities participants did not benefit from the extra £20 per week at all because they were in receipt of legacy benefits. Applying the uplift to some benefits but not others has created a two-tiered system of deservingness that leaves behind legacy benefit claimants, the majority of whom may have health conditions and disabilities, or who are carers (Cameron, 2021).

Locked down, locked in: compounded pressure

The stresses and strains caused by the struggle of getting by and the social security system were exacerbated by stay-at-home restrictions. Both school and structured work ended for many, bringing new financial pressures and new dynamics at home, as Lexie explains: “The new lockdown means more meals to find to keep them full, more stress of trying to become one teacher between four kids all in different age groups, just more worry” (Lexie, January 2021). Although the first summer of the pandemic brought opportunities to spend time outdoors and to reconnect as a family, the stigma and restrictions of poverty were again thrown into sharp relief when pubs and restaurants reopened in August. Schemes such as ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ were inaccessible to families without disposable income and did little to help with feelings of shame and exclusion. As summer turned into winter, and nights became colder and longer with few resources for entertainment and little prospect of escape or relief, a grinding sense of monotony set in. Deb reflected: “Every day is the same. Nowhere to go. Nothing is exciting any more like things used to be. Feel trapped inside” (November 2020). While Callie described feeling like a “zombie” through the seemingly endless “groundhog day of isolation and house imprisonment” (April 2021). In this context, possibilities for escape gained heightened significance but commonly experiences simply served to emphasise the inescapability of lockdown and of poverty. Connie planned a brief break, only for a burst bubble to render this impossible:

‘We were meant to be away for three nights in my parents’ new caravan. Unfortunately my eldest was sent home to self-isolate for 14 days from school so we are unable to go … I am feeling incredibly fed up … So many people still seem to be going out and enjoying fun experiences but I don’t feel able to do that.’ (October 2020)

The grinding budgets, inadequate social security payments, and the compressed tension of lockdown had consequences. By the end of March 2021, one in three Covid Realities diary entries made reference to some aspect(s) of mental health – predominantly anxiety and low mood.

Mental health

The uneven distribution of mental illness in society is well-documented, with those in the most deprived fifth of households two to three times more likely to suffer mental ill health than those in the top fifth (Marmot et al, 2010; Mental Health Foundation, 2021) – inequalities that have been exacerbated by lockdown (NatCen 2021; Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2021). In Covid Realities, we saw the immediate anxieties at the beginning of the pandemic give way to chronic stresses and worries over time. Regularly, poor mental health was tied to living conditions. For Callie, it was the constant struggle of balancing inadequate income with her children’s needs: “I’m so anxious and depressed, I’ve never felt this bad. I was put on antidepressants last week by my GP over all the stress and worries I have over feeding and clothing my children and keeping the heating and lights on. I’m in despair, it’s desperate” (December 2020). Indeed, throughout parents’ accounts was a sense of the vulnerability of life at the margins. Families with few resources were exposed to constant stress, with lockdown removing coping and support mechanisms. Participants longed for the potential to laugh, relax, and talk through problems in healing face-to-face chats. Many also missed the rewards and comforts of physical touch, as described by May: “Apart from my seven-year-old I haven’t had a hug or hugged anyone since March. Just thinking about that makes me feel low” (November 2020). For a subset of women, past experiences of domestic abuse exacerbated the pains of lockdown and compounded existing trauma. As Meg describes, forced confinement echoed her abuser’s strategies: “My son’s dad would lock me in the house to prevent me from leaving when I felt under threat from him. Now [going out] is prohibited and I’m finding that aspect hard – it has definitely affected my mental health negatively, despite already taking long-term antidepressants” (June 2020). The social security system frequently added to the stresses and strains of getting by on a low-income through inadequate payments and uncertainty about the future (Pybus et al, 2021). Decision-making around the continuation of the £20 uplift, for example, left families feeling precarious – Winter O, told us: “The proposed change [removing £20 uplift] is the difference between paying our bills and not being able to pay some of them. And if one-off expenses crop up (like new shoes for kids etc) then you can’t cover it. Any changes to benefits are very stressful” (January 2021). Perhaps unsurprisingly, lone parents often felt particularly alone with their struggles (see also Chapter 8 in this collection). Participants told us that taking part in Covid Realities, in a small way, helped to reduce some of these feelings of isolation. As well as the research and policy engagement functions of the project, parents and carers reflected that taking part in online discussion groups and arts-based workshops had provided a space to connect and to meet others going through similar experiences, so improving wellbeing:

‘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.’ (Isla F, March 2021)

Alex and Victoria

Echoing several chapters throughout this collection, Covid Realities speaks to the feminisation of poverty (for example Chant, 2007; 2008; see also discussion in Lister, 2020). It may be in part an artefact of online diary methods, but 13 in every 14 participants were female; two thirds were parenting alone.2 Sole parenting and domestic abuse played significant roles in many of our participants’ pathways into poverty, and Alex and Victoria’s sharp choice between financial security and terrifying (male) violence stood as a powerful indicator of gendered dynamics. Strikingly, drawing on Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) data, Hakitova et al (2019) estimate that 60 per cent of all lone parent families in the UK could be lifted out of poverty by adequate child maintenance payments (Hakitova et al, 2019: 16).

To highlight this, we now show how the themes developed so far played out in gendered ways within the lives of two women who took part in Covid Realities. Alex is a single mother in Scotland, with a daughter recently diagnosed with autism. Victoria is a lone parent in the North of England with two children with additional needs. Each engaged with Covid Realities for their own reasons. Victoria wanted to be a part of history, and to speak to future generations:

‘To the future people who read this study, who read about the plights of us low-income families, know that I thank you for taking time to look back on our nation’s past. And heed this: learn from our mistakes. Value your undervalued. Prioritise potential over tax ability. How many minds are wasted in the drains of societies?’ (July 2020)

Victoria attended a wide range of participatory events available to Covid Realities participants, and was keen to drive social change. Alex engaged with Covid Realities for different reasons – finding a space to offload, free of judgement: “[In my diary] I can say exactly how I feel without others dismissing/calling me depressing/negative/bitter” (March 2021). Alex’s engagement was one-way. She shared how she was feeling almost every day, but – almost uniquely – provided no functional email address and participated in no interactive activities.

Alex and Victoria had different early lockdown experiences. Victoria had always home schooled her children, easing the transition. However, aware of her own health conditions, Victoria watched with concern as others passed her house without masks and ignored social distancing. Adding to her fears of the virus itself were fears for her children’s future: “I learnt this weekend that if I catch the virus and die … my kids would ‘most likely be sent to their father’ … The man who’d hit my daughter anytime she spoke without permission … If I die, my kids go to him? I’m horrified” (July 2020). For Victoria, COVID-19 presented new existential threats. Nonetheless, Victoria got on with her neighbours and as time progressed, they supported and helped one another. Alex’s difficulties were more compressed, as early lockdown blended into her bullied daughter’s withdrawal from school and even greater isolation set in. From the outset, Alex distrusted government and media messages and engaged with conspiracy theories. As time progressed, her posts became less extreme but her anxiety did not: “Sleepless night with anxiety. Tear streaming down my face this morning. This Corona madness needs to stop now. Stop the media’s daily count and scaremongering” (November 2021). For Alex, lockdown meant being at home with an autistic daughter, with abundant anxiety arising from their circumstances and compounded by her understanding of the world. Both women struggled with daily costs, describing their difficulties through food. For Alex, it was watching her daughter’s plate and finishing what little food she left, and the indignity of being reliant on a food bank: “I am aware of food banks. I walk to them and feel the humiliation knowing the father of my child is living in luxury as a businessman taking his pick from takeaway menus or eating out to help out. Not a penny for our child” (December 2020). Both women also associated their precarity with abuse. Financial security had meant physical and emotional danger; now they were physically safe, their finances were much more precarious. Victoria describes:

‘I knew when I left my ex that I was making a choice between living in hell with him or living in relative poverty without him, I chose the latter cos at least my kids would be safe from abuse on benefits. But it’s a shitty choice … Hunger or assault. A poor example of living, or the daily risk of death.’ (March 2021)

Abuse remained a persistent companion for both. Alex’s ex-partner refused to pay child maintenance, and she saw the Child Maintenance Service’s failure to help as sustained abuse from an uncaring, patriarchal government. Victoria’s memories of abuse were triggered by her experiences of the (controlling, dominant, and seemingly punitive) social security system: “Just thinking about it, about having to go to the job centre again and be approved the money needed to feed my kids for another month, makes me feel physically sick, dizzy and clammy. It’s a very unhealthy environment for anyone, let alone abuse survivors” (May 2021). For Alex and Victoria, life before lockdown had been tough, but manageable. However, lockdown brought with it new challenges – new precarity, new fears of ill health, new reminders of old trauma – rooted in gendered inequalities, and greatly increasing their sense of vulnerability and exposure.

Implications of this work for policy

As qualitative, diary-based research, Covid Realities has been well positioned to capture rich insights into the daily lives and experiences of families on a low income as the pandemic has unfolded. These experiences point to one clear message: that the social security system is failing families. Moreover, the inadequacies within the system have been greatly exacerbated by the pandemic (Brewer and Gardiner, 2020; CPAG, 2020; Trades Union Congress [TUC], 2020). It is clear that we are not ‘all in it together’ (Nolan, 2021); rather, pre-existing social inequalities have been hardened by social security structures that force families into hard, swift decisions between debt and hunger, and that make it incredibly difficult to escape.

There have been some positives during the pandemic, as we also see in Chapters 6, 8, and 9. At a time when families found themselves in dire need of support, significant new steps were taken – an uplift of £20 UC for some, a pause in conditionality, and the suspension of the minimum income floor (for example Brewer and Handscombe, 2020: 7; Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2020). Social security administration processes coped effectively despite 2.3 million households initiating a UC claim in the first eight weeks of lockdown alone (Mackley, 2021 :3). Nonetheless, despite extensive budgeting and financial management strategies (see Brewer and Patrick, 2021), our families had nothing to spare. They had no surplus for emergencies, no buffer to keep the car going, no capacity to absorb the costs of utilities. The £20 uplift was barely noticed by our families, because provision still fell so far short of adequately covering the basics: food, clothing, and utilities. Contrastingly, its end was widely feared because it threatened harder times still.

Nor has the policy response adequately addressed the particular needs of families. Having children meant home schooling; home schooling added meals, heating, materials, and entertainment to family costs (Brewer and Patrick, 2021). The cost of school uniforms also represented a unique burden on families, compelling some to choose between heating, eating, or a new school blazer (Page et al, 2021). Lockdown – and home schooling – then added disproportionately to the stresses and strains of family life. Parents had no option but to become teachers, counsellors, and constant companions to children who were themselves enduring a generational event. The stress of doing this within small houses and flats, sometimes without access to outside space, was severe. Our participants were clear about the harmful impact on their mental health and about the causes of this: inadequate food, inadequate heating, inadequate clothing, inadequate housing, and an inability to prosper, thrive, or adequately feed their children left them struggling with low mood and persistent stress and anxiety – key themes also highlighted by Cameron et al in Chapter 6.

For the families who signed up to Covid Realities, life was hard before COVID-19 arrived. Years before the pandemic, Meg lost nearly everything when chronic disability and domestic abuse changed her life:

‘Before I was swept into poverty due to circumstances beyond my control, I was in full-time employment in the NHS, I was married with children, I was buying my own home with my husband via a mortgage, I was studying for a degree and I was doing all of those things.’

Through hearing directly from parents and carers such as Meg, Covid Realities research has been able to reframe and challenge harmful, negative stereotypes about poverty and has highlighted just some of the myriad different circumstances by which people may find themselves experiencing poverty and accessing social security. Traditional accounts of stigma often foreground the passivity of those who are stigmatised, but people can and do challenge negative stereotypes if given the space to do so (Thoits, 2011).

At the heart of Covid Realities has been a belief that policies should be developed in partnership with people who have lived experience. Social security can – and we would argue should – have a protective impact. With adequate benefits, predictable payments, and robust processes the welfare system could be a tremendous resource for resilience – particularly at times of crisis. To this end, some policy recommendations are clear. Firstly, social security should enable a decent, basic standard of life that accounts for the significant additional needs of families with children. Secondly, this level of support should be available when claims are first initiated – processes that begin with a hard choice between indebtedness or starvation cannot be fit for purpose. Thirdly, this level of support should be available for all; that some support measures, such as the £20 uplift, was only applied to some benefits creates additional inequities within an already unjust system.

Through Covid Realities, parents and carers have communicated directly with politicians, the media, and the public, to generate greater understanding about poverty and social security, as well as what needs to change and why. In doing so, Covid Realities has also demonstrated the inadequacy of our current safety net for supporting families and provided a space for resistance. As we move forward through the pandemic, Covid Realities participants will continue to engage with policymakers and their stories will act as a living archive for researchers and the public, both now and in the future.



This may be an overestimation – through the Big Ideas Groups we know of several non-White and asylum-seeking participants who did not provide any demographic information.


Male partners were also very rarely mentioned by diarists who identified as partnered or married.


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