Parenting in the pandemic: exploring the experiences of families with children on Universal Credit before and during the COVID-19 pandemic

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  • 1 University of Bath, UK
  • | 2 University of Oxford, UK
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The expansion of the UK’s support for families with children from the late 1990s was put into reverse over the decade from 2010. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, therefore, parents may have felt that they had less support from the government and increased private responsibility in bringing up the next generation. Drawing on qualitative interviews with parents in England and Scotland claiming Universal Credit, this article analyses parenting experiences for low-income families during the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular concerning the costs of looking after children, caring for children, and family relationships/mental health. Our findings suggest that the privatisation of parenting in the UK has been further reinforced during the pandemic, with largely negative implications for families with children. The positive experiences for some with families must be supported by public policy change to persist.

Abstract

The expansion of the UK’s support for families with children from the late 1990s was put into reverse over the decade from 2010. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, therefore, parents may have felt that they had less support from the government and increased private responsibility in bringing up the next generation. Drawing on qualitative interviews with parents in England and Scotland claiming Universal Credit, this article analyses parenting experiences for low-income families during the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular concerning the costs of looking after children, caring for children, and family relationships/mental health. Our findings suggest that the privatisation of parenting in the UK has been further reinforced during the pandemic, with largely negative implications for families with children. The positive experiences for some with families must be supported by public policy change to persist.

Introduction and background

The UK was described by Kamerman and Kahn (1978) in their much-cited study as having an ‘implicit’ rather than an ‘explicit’ family policy, affecting families more indirectly than directly. Thus, traditionally, the UK was seen as having a ‘hands-off’ approach as regards families with children. However, this changed with the New Labour governments from 1997 to 2010 (Daly, 2010), as they improved social security benefits for families, including increasing Child Benefit and especially means-tested benefits for children; in addition, they invested in services, including Sure Start centres, bringing together provision for parents and children in local communities.

During this time, the Conservatives in opposition were interested in ‘family breakdown’ (including family break-up and poor parenting) as a symptom of social breakdown, with their thinking focusing largely on family structure (Lister and Bennett, 2010). From 2010 onwards, however, first with the coalition government, and then the Conservative governments from 2015, the emphasis in social policy (apart from a small tax allowance to support marriage; Bennett and Himmelweit, 2013) was instead on cuts in ‘welfare’, in particular for families, following the 2008/09 financial crisis. Prior to the pandemic, therefore, parenting in the UK was becoming more privatised – the term used here to mean that families, especially those on low incomes, were increasingly carrying the responsibility for bringing up their children with declining levels of state support.

Faircloth (2020) links the individualisation, or intensification, of parenting to the nature of (neo)liberal welfare states such as the UK. Gillies (2020) argues that the individualisation of parenting is consistent with an instrumentalist focus on parental investment in children (European Commission, 2013). This can also be linked to the recent emphasis on the work of parenting itself (Daly, 2014; see also Daly and Bray, 2015). Low-income families did find themselves the target of initiatives such as the Family Nurse Partnership (DH, 2012) and the Troubled Families programme (DCLG, 2014), with a focus on parenting and families with multiple disadvantages. (These programmes, and parenting interventions more generally, often in practice focus on mothers rather than parents.) But financial support was simultaneously reduced, and Sure Start centres in communities merged or closed.

Here, therefore, we examine the extent to which policy in the UK ensures government support for parents for the costs of children and the task of bringing them up.1 We argue in this article, focusing on low-income families claiming Universal Credit, that the privatisation of parenting intensified during the pandemic. First, however, we explore the policy context.

Cuts in financial support, as noted, began with the coalition government in 2010. Such cuts were not confined to the UK within Europe, and also included some greater targeting rather than universality (European Commission, 2017); cuts in child benefit packages seem to have been one cause of higher increases in poverty among children than pensioners (Cantillon et al, 2017). But in the UK, Cooper and Hills (2021) found that social security spending on children fell by £10 billion over the decade to 2019/20. Child Benefit lost almost a quarter of its real value (CPAG, 2020), and many families with one or more higher earners incurred a ‘high income Child Benefit charge’, resulting in extra income tax (which is imposed unless Child Benefit is given up). These measures together mean those with children pay proportionately more tax relative to those without (Bennett and Himmelweit, 2013).

Most working-age benefits were uprated by less than inflation and were then frozen. Help with housing costs was reduced for private tenants and the family premium was removed from support for children in means-tested benefits and tax credits. A benefit cap was introduced, limiting the amount of means tested housing support. The cap was also then applied to Universal Credit, impacting in particular families with no earner. In addition, a two-child limit restricted means-tested additions for children to two per family for those born from April 2017 onwards, with limited exceptions.

The impacts of such cuts are likely to be long-lasting because children’s cognitive skills are closely related to their family’s financial resources (Cooper and Stewart, 2021). While the national minimum wage was increased, and the personal tax allowance was raised in real terms, for many families this did not make up for reduced benefits (Cribb et al, 2018: 94). Moreover, these cuts were imposed despite the existence of the ‘family test’, intended to guide policy makers to assess proposals for their impacts on families.2 Publishing the results of applying the test is encouraged but not required (Abreu and Bellis, 2019).

However, the devolved nations have not followed all these policy changes affecting families in areas where they have devolved powers. Northern Ireland and Scotland in particular have tried to compensate for the impact of many. For Scotland, this is seen as part of its child poverty strategy; it has also passed a Child Poverty Act in 2017, with similar measures to those in the 2010 Act (abolished [in 2016] for the UK as a whole) and incorporated the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scottish law. It has introduced several additional payments for families, especially new parents, including a Best Start grant and the Scottish Child Payment for low-income families with young children, as well as other measures.

The cuts to benefits at the UK level were imposed alongside the introduction of Universal Credit in 2013. Universal Credit included few families initially, but the rollout has included increasing numbers, and claimant numbers then doubled during the pandemic. Findings from the first phase of our research, before the pandemic (Griffiths et al, 2020), showed Universal Credit claimants facing many challenges that affected family wellbeing and relationships. Universal Credit rolls six means-tested benefits into one, and is calculated and paid monthly. Our own and other research shows that applying a monthly means test can destabilise families’ incomes, especially for those with one or more earners. Alongside the low level of benefits, this makes it difficult to build up savings as a buffer against such fluctuations. Combined with the initial five-week wait before the first award, necessitated by the monthly design, Universal Credit therefore adds to family hardship for many – ironically for those going into employment in particular, precisely those whom it was designed to support.

In addition, public services for families have been affected by austerity policies. Local authorities in England have lost 18 per cent of their funding since 2010 (Institute for Government, 2020), leaving crucial public provision for families (such as parks and libraries) drastically reduced. This ignores the European Commission’s recommendation (2013) about children’s right to play and recreational activities. Total spending on young children in particular fell from 2015, with proportionately less spent on low-income families (Stewart and Reader, 2020). In relation to UK leave for parents, although the maximum paid post-natal leave lasts nearly 14 months, most of this is unpaid or low paid (Atkinson et al, 2020) and emergency time off to care for dependants is unpaid. The deficiencies of this provision for parents became even clearer during the pandemic.

One area in which the government could point to increased support is childcare policy. However, while investment has increased, policy is now much more complicated (Eisenstadt and Oppenheim, 2020). The closure of Sure Start centres started under the coalition and continued under the Conservative government (Stewart and Reader, 2020). Canton (2018) argues that this neglects the need to provide an environment in which social support networks can flourish (Hill et al, 2020). The further 15 hours of free childcare provision per (term-time) week for 3- and 4-year-olds, on top of 15 hours of universal provision, applies only to parents counted as working (enough) but with wages below a certain level, and according to providers is under-funded.3 So-called tax-exempt childcare for other parents reinforces the largely marketised nature of childcare in the UK (Gallagher, 2018).

Low-income families meeting certain criteria should also be entitled to 15 hours per week of free term-time care for 2-year-olds. Universal Credit provides help with up to 85 per cent of childcare costs. Unlike previous means-tested assistance, this also includes parents working under 16 hours per week. But paying costs upfront is proving very hard for many, and the maximum limits have not been updated recently (Wood, 2021). Many low-income families continue to rely on informal childcare, although take-up of the free entitlement for 3- and 4-year-olds is high.

With these developments over the previous decade as background, the UK’s COVID-19 pandemic resulted in many more challenges for parents, especially those on low incomes. On 23 March 2020, the first lockdown was announced. Schools were closed and most pupils, except children of some ‘key workers’4 and some vulnerable children, remained off school until September 2020, when all schools opened. There was another lockdown in January 2021, until after the Easter break. The situation was even harder for parents with children in private nurseries, with some having to pay for care they could not access to retain places (Foster, 2021), or rescinding places but worrying about whether they could access childcare on returning to work.

Some parents with children who were ill or self-isolating due to COVID-19 could claim Statutory Sick Pay or Employment and Support Allowance (Bradshaw et al, 2021). But working parents with children at home, because schools or childcare provision were closed, had no entitlement to paid leave, only a right to request furlough from employers, which could be refused. One survey found that some 70 per cent of mothers requesting furlough for this reason had been refused (TUC, 2021). The Petitions Committee (Hansard HC, 2020) recommended that the government should extend all forms of parental leave and pay for new parents affected by the pandemic (Atkinson et al, 2020). But no modifications were made.

Apart from the extension of free school meal provision into school holidays, there was no additional social security provision specifically for children until Healthy Start vouchers were increased in April 2021. As Cooper and Hills (2021) noted, immediate responses to the crisis included a temporary ‘uplift’ of some £20 per week in the standard allowance of Universal Credit (£86.67 per month) and the basic rate of Working Tax Credit; funding for local authorities to increase Council Tax support; and the reversal of cuts in the ‘local housing allowance’ amounts for private tenants in place since 2013. But the ‘uplift’ was flat rate and thus worth proportionately less for those with partners and/or children.

In addition, the two-child limit remained; and the benefit cap meant some families did not receive all or any of the Universal Credit ‘uplift’. This was despite the ostensible rationale for the benefit cap (creating an incentive to move into paid work or move house to reduce housing costs) making no sense during the pandemic (Covid Realities Project, 2021; Griffiths, 2021).

It would therefore be unsurprising, given this context, if, despite the measures taken during the pandemic, low-income families have been struggling. Is this the case?

Method and sample

Our research5 in four areas of England and Scotland, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, explored the experiences of 90 Universal Credit claimants with and without dependent children6 in two waves of interviews, around two years apart, between 2018 and 2020. The study received ethical clearance from the Social Science Research Ethics Committee at the University of Bath. Findings from both phases of fieldwork have been written up in full (Griffiths et al, 2020; 2022). All the participants in the research were claiming, or had claimed, Universal Credit (as well as, for some, other means-tested benefits or tax credits) as a couple. Some had also claimed Universal Credit as a lone parent or single claimant. The second interviews were conducted in September and October 2020 with 63 participants, and included an exploration of how participants were managing in the pandemic. We conducted the first interviews face to face. Second interviews were conducted over the telephone, due to COVID-19 restrictions. The telephone interviews worked well and participants seemed open to talking in this way. This may reflect the fact that we had established a rapport through face-to-face interviews in phase 1. Participants may also have welcomed the opportunity to talk, having experienced fewer opportunities for this due to the pandemic, as noted in other research (Kobakhidze et al, 2021).

All interviews were recorded, transcribed and coded inductively into themes and subthemes using MAXQDA software. The coded data on the topics related to this article were further analysed to establish key issues and themes.

This article focuses on the households in our sample with children. Thirty-nine of the 53 households interviewed at phase 1 had dependent children (30 couples and nine lone parents). Thirty of the 39 households with participants interviewed at phase 2 had dependent children (24 couples and six lone parents). Twenty-six of these 30 households were still claiming Universal Credit in phase 2. Ten in phase 1 and seven in phase 2 were living in Scotland, with the remainder in England. The majority were households with one or two earners (10 dual-earner and nine single-earner couples and one working lone parent) and 10 were no-earner households (five couples and five lone parents). Most families (24/30) had one or two children at phase 2 and most (19/30) had at least one pre-school-aged child.

Findings

Our findings relate to three main areas of families’ lives (with some overlaps): the costs of looking after children, caring for children, and family relationships/mental health. For each, we briefly explore ongoing issues faced by the parents in our sample, followed by those more specifically related to the pandemic, to understand how pandemic experiences are layered on top of the challenges families are already facing. More accounts of their experiences, including more direct quotations, can be found in the main reports of our research (Griffiths et al, 2020; 2022).

Costs of looking after children

Ongoing and pre-pandemic financial struggles

Many parents told us that their children’s needs always came first, but that they often found it difficult to afford even the most basic requirements for them. Many used food banks. Parents described how hard it was to save money, meaning that they struggled even more with children’s growth spurts, buying gifts or replacing broken appliances, often having to take out loans or borrow from friends or family. For older children, parents needed to buy mobile phones and pay the tariffs. It was also challenging to keep up with schools’ expectations that children wear uniform of a certain quality and from particular outlets. Parents told us support with uniform costs was either non-existent or too low (see The Children’s Society, 2020; CPAG, 2021; Page et al, 2021). Several working parents also said they had to pay for school meals, with a few losing eligibility after increasing their working hours, despite still getting Universal Credit.7

For many families in which at least one partner worked, or one or both worked sporadically, the monthly Universal Credit assessment created additional challenges, as it destabilised their incomes. Several families with an earner tried to control how much they worked in an effort to keep their Universal Credit payments steady. However, for many, fear of losing their job, or wanting to help their employer, meant they felt obliged to take on any extra hours offered. In one case, a family worked extra hours to meet their children’s needs for school uniform, only to find that their next Universal Credit payment was much lower and, combined with a month in which they did not work more hours, left them having to rely on food banks. And for some, poor labour market options, and their limited qualifications, meant it was challenging to find anything but very short-term, occasional employment, which unsettled their income, making it harder to cope.

In addition, many parents also had deductions from their Universal Credit, often for debts they had had no idea about; sometimes partners found themselves liable to pay debts incurred by the other partner before becoming a couple (Griffiths et al, 2020). Families also reported feeling that money for the children was less protected in Universal Credit than in tax credits because, as one woman said, “they take money off your overall claim. So … none of your elements are protected, like child elements”.

Our findings also point to the impact on particular families of wider benefit restrictions. Five households were affected by the two-child limit. In addition, a few parents were under 25 and therefore had a lower standard allowance.8 These families were all struggling severely, with a few unable to afford even basic furniture. Several had very complex backgrounds, such as experiences in care, and little wider family support. Canton (2018) found that, for the lone mothers in his study, social support often made the difference between struggling and coping with economic adversity; but they also found it hard to make financial decisions, due to the complexity and changing nature of benefits.

One more positive aspect, however, related to Scotland, where parents told us about extra payments they received: “If it’s your firstborn, you’ll get £600 ... Then you also get money around their second birthday, which is £250, and then you also get another £250 for before they start school” (female partner in single-earner couple with one child [Scotland]).

These forms of financial support were extremely welcome. However, the parents we interviewed in Scotland still experienced financial strain, especially the larger families.

Costs of looking after children in the pandemic

The majority of parents described how their financial struggles worsened during the pandemic. Many said their household food costs increased when their children were at home. In addition, restrictions meant that several could not travel to cheaper shops. Some were self-isolating at home and needed to shop online, which increased costs, especially because budget supermarkets often did not provide online shopping. A few parents felt their food costs had roughly doubled during the lockdown. Parents also described needing to buy items to entertain and educate their children at home, and many mentioned increased bills because they were using appliances more. A few were told to buy extra school uniform, and wash uniforms more frequently to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

One lone parent spoke about how challenging she found it in lockdown to have her disabled teenage son at home all the time because support centres had closed. This created constant demands for food and entertainment costs; the Disability Living Allowance (DLA)9 she received was inadequate to cover these and was not increased because of the pandemic.

Parents in two larger families described how, during the lockdown, having exceeded their allowance for using food banks,10 they went without food themselves so their children could eat.

Families welcomed the £20 per week uplift to the standard allowance of Universal Credit, which was needed to cope with these extra costs. However, while some parents had received the uplift in full, over half reported not noticing an increase, or having been paid much less. The reasons for this were complex, but for some were linked to fluctuating Universal Credit payments or deductions making changes less noticeable.11 For example, one lone parent described how “I never get a set amount every month to notice if it went up”.

Three families were also affected by the benefit cap, and so were already receiving the maximum support possible. For some families, increased Universal Credit could also lead to a loss of, or reduction in, other means-tested support, such as help with Council Tax. Findings from our study of the £20 uplift are published in more detail elsewhere (Griffiths, 2021).

Although there was no specific additional social security cash support for those with children during the pandemic, there was some in-kind provision. Families receiving free school meals welcomed the vouchers they received instead of these, which were (after some pressure on the government from activists) extended into some holidays. However, not all were eligible. Many also depended on charitable help, and some received a combination: “I have been living on food vouchers, food boxes from the school, help from my mum” (female non-working lone parent with three children).

However, while these forms of support were highly valued, several spoke of the stigma of using food banks, or hating the visibility of food parcels being dropped off, and the fear of looking as though they could not care for their children, and potentially of being referred to social services.

Although the lockdown increased costs for many families, we did find a few for whom the situation was more mixed. Ten parents were furloughed, though for most this was only brief. Several of those furloughed or able to work from home described saving money in commuting. A couple of families noticed that they saved money because of no longer spending on the children’s social activities such as playgroups and extra-curricular activities: “We had more money because things like ... swimming … so, things that the kids love ... they all stopped” (female partner in dual-earner couple with two children). This parent said they would think twice about restarting the children’s activities after lockdown, because of the cost saving. This would, of course, be likely to reduce the social contact their children had. However, most families had already cut additional spending just to get by, so had no room to make further cuts to allow for increased costs (Brewer and Patrick, 2021).

There were not many private renters in our sample, but one lone parent described how her financial situation improved because the increase in the local housing allowance implemented in the pandemic meant she now received the full amount for her rent. This provided some compensation for the additional costs she faced with three teenagers at home. However, this was then frozen in April 2021, instead of being uprated with local rents.

Caring for children

Ongoing and pre-pandemic childcare issues

Parents were already facing many childcare issues prior to the pandemic, especially related to costs. There was a general welcome for the ‘free’ childcare. However, many parents said they still had to contribute. For example, one parent said top-up fees cost them £140 each month.

Lone parents, and two-parent families with two earners, on Universal Credit can reclaim up to 85 per cent of their childcare costs (up to certain maxima). However, many were put off by the requirement to pay costs upfront – money they simply did not have. For the few parents who took up this help, having to evidence costs each month was a significant administrative burden on the parent with that responsibility – typically the woman. In addition, parents often received less than 85 per cent, because help with childcare costs is included in the monthly Universal Credit assessment, and so is reduced as earnings increase (Wood, 2021).

Some parents also felt that the conditionality rules within Universal Credit did not fully account for their role as carers for their children. Many had young children, meaning that the ‘lead carer’ in a couple was not expected to look for work, or had modified conditionality,12 while the other partner was meant to look for full-time work if they were in the intensive work search regime. Several thought the idea of nominating a lead carer was outdated and did not reflect how they saw their parental roles: “We both do pull our weight … I think we’re both equal, so I don’t really like nominating … someone who’s known as … a ... lead carer” (female partner in dual-earner couple with two children).

A few also felt that pressure on one partner to be seeking full-time work placed unrealistic expectations on them as a family, especially where there were few, or only precarious, opportunities – which, as mentioned by this parent, destabilised their Universal Credit: “... if you say ‘it just mucks my money up’, they’re not really bothered‚ ‘he’s in work’ … We’ve got three children, they’re going to send him out to a job that’s going to last a week, it’s not helpful but it does majorly affect our money” (female partner in no-earner couple with three children).

The man in this couple described feeling worried about being sanctioned because this had happened before. Some families felt Jobcentre staff simply wanted them to take any job available, without considering whether it had the flexibility, for example, to take time off if their children were ill.

Pandemic impacts on childcare

Overall, parents were faced with increased childcare responsibilities, as their children were no longer in school or nursery, and described feeling they were given little support. Most families had young or primary-school-aged children and reported difficulties in the children suddenly being expected to learn at home, where previously they were used to playing and relaxing. The challenge was greatest when parents were also trying to work from home. A few mentioned not having the appropriate technology and none reported being given computers by schools.

For single-earner couples, it was more common that the male partner was working; and in dual-earner couples, the male partner was more likely to be working full time and the female partner part time, leaving her at home more to cope with home schooling: “When [partner] was at work, I had to run the household, entertain [daughter] and home school [son], and that was really hard because I felt there wasn’t enough hours in the day” (female partner in single-earner couple with two children).

This woman described her feelings of guilt and stress about not having the time to home educate their children: “I’m drained after I finish my work … It’s more stress that I put towards myself, thinking … I should be there with them and [at] the same time … I need to work” (female partner in dual-earner couple with two children).

When male partners were furloughed, and both parents were at home, there were some more positive reports of men enjoying spending time with their children (see next section). However, it was not clear how much home schooling was undertaken by each partner in these situations, and some women reflected that this fell more to them.

Several families with younger children in formal childcare reported the struggles they faced holding on to places during lockdown, not knowing when they would return to work; a few had given up places and were unsure whether they could secure one again when needed. Continuing to pay childminders or nurseries with furloughed wages was not always possible because parents were not always receiving their usual income. For example, one mother was shocked that her employer reduced her salary before he furloughed her, on the basis that she would not need to pay for childcare because her children were at home. She was also furloughed on 80 per cent of her reduced wage. Some parents also faced difficulties because their usual informal childcare arrangements broke down. Thus, both formal and informal sources of support were less available to parents during the pandemic.

However, for one family, in which the parents were already both working part time to share care of the children, things were rather different: they enjoyed the opportunity to spend more time engaging with their children’s education, and felt their part-time working arrangements allowed them to do so. This could be seen as a positive aspect of the increasingly privatised nature of pandemic parenting.

One other positive for some parents in the intensive work search regime was the pause on conditionality requirements for three months until July 2020, meaning that intensive work search requirements did not have to be completed – although many claimants in fact went on looking for work (Edmiston et al, 2020). Conditionality was then reintroduced, but with a ‘light touch’, taking into account the pandemic. When we interviewed our cohort in September/October 2020, most of those in the intensive work search group were still not being expected to complete mandatory work search hours.

For some families, the pause in conditionality was a welcome respite, allowing them to focus on parenting without the stress of trying to find work, and the risks of being forced into poor-quality employment. However, others found the break challenging: they wanted support to find work, but instead felt abandoned when they needed help more than ever.

Family time / relationships / mental health

Ongoing and pre-pandemic issues

Our findings show that even prior to the pandemic, raising children while living on a low income, within the context of austerity, inadequate benefit levels and rising costs, the pressures of work conditionality and the limited possibilities for secure jobs – combined with the instability often caused by fluctuating Universal Credit payments – all had an impact on family relationships and the mental health of parents and children.

Many participants described how specific aspects of Universal Credit added to their worries as parents. As noted, unpredictable Universal Credit payments led to anxiety in the household. For example, one woman found her wages often double or even triple reported, which affected the couple’s Universal Credit payment and in turn meant she had to spend hours on the telephone on hold, trying to rectify the issue while caring for a small baby. This created much stress within the household, affecting the parents’ mental health – and also that of their other child, subsequently noticed by teachers at school. This mother was no longer working when interviewed in phase 2 – a decision which had greatly reduced stress levels in the household.

One couple with two children had separated by phase 2. The combination of issues with their Universal Credit payment, and especially finding the childcare element administratively onerous and reimbursement insufficient, meant they were finding it extremely challenging to juggle maintaining their busy working lives and caring for the children. They tried to work alternate hours so that they could manage the childcare between them, but their relationship broke down. As the female partner, now a lone parent, said: “We didn’t get the time together that we should have, as a couple or as a family … we were just both … working as much as we could to get by.”

Pandemic impacts on family mental health and relationships

Parents in our sample described the impact of the pandemic on their own and their children’s mental health. For example, some experienced loneliness, or were worried about themselves or their children becoming ill, their children’s learning and mental health, or their own future employment. These concerns were layered on top of the impact of their long-term financial worries on their mental health. A few parents had specific concerns about how their Universal Credit payment might be destabilised by pandemic-related employment changes. This was more likely to affect women (mostly responsible for managing the family finances).

Parents who knew about the £20 per week uplift to the standard allowance were also concerned about the planned withdrawal: “… I think it’s going to be very difficult to then lose £100 … It makes a difference to, like, the food shopping and stuff” (female non-working lone parent with two children).

Studies have reported how services for vulnerable children and families faced limitations in their ability to provide support due to government restrictions and decreased financial support, which had an impact, particularly on those lacking access to technology (Wilke et al, 2020). Parents in our sample were also very likely to depend on support networks and services. Some lost access to these because they closed down and/or they could not connect with more informal forms of support due to restrictions. This was a particular concern for some of the lone parents (see Canton, 2018). The families we interviewed were also more likely to live in more disadvantaged areas where social problems caused by COVID-19 might affect them. For example, one non-earning couple, with a toddler and expecting another child, were living in a block of flats and, with more local unemployment, there were more neighbourhood disturbances.

There were some more positive impacts, particularly in relation to relaxing the gendered division of labour and bringing some relief in terms of managing complicated work and caring arrangements. Some families in which at least one partner was furloughed, if they felt confident of a return to work, welcomed the break. One father, for example, was able to support his partner at home with their four children, including two young twins; subsequently he decided to reduce his working hours slightly, so that he could continue to spend more time at home.

One female partner in a dual-earner couple with two children described how the pandemic provided a good opportunity for her partner to “be a wee bit more hands on with ... how to deal with children and just deal with things around the house and that.”

In another case, the parents said that the pandemic gave them a chance to work together as a couple on parenting. Another father described how this was the first time he was able to spend a decent amount of time with his children since they were born, because previously he had always had to work such long hours, and had barely had holidays.

For one dual-earning couple, being able to work from home and avoid the commute to work made them re-evaluate how stressful and busy their lives had been: “I don’t want to go back to that! ... It was just to spend all that time together was just wonderful” (female partner in dual-earner couple with two children).

Discussion and conclusion

Our research on Universal Credit reveals a reinforcement of the ‘privatisation’ of parenthood in the pandemic, with responsibility for caring for children in increasingly challenging contexts located largely with low-income parents themselves. Our findings show that inadequate benefit rates, and the increase in payment volatility and administrative burden for claimants introduced by the monthly assessment in the Universal Credit system, alongside the two-child limit, the benefit cap, the lower under-25s benefit rate and other measures, created very difficult financial situations for many families even before the pandemic. For most families, life then became worse. The uplift to the standard allowance of Universal Credit was welcomed. But the flat-rate amount meant it was worth proportionately less to families, especially those with several children; and it was not received, or only received in part, by many, due to the benefit cap, and the way Universal Credit is tapered away with earnings and/or reduced by deductions. For the parents who did receive the uplift, the extra money was often absorbed by the increased costs of lockdown living (see also Brewer and Patrick, 2021), as well as by the build-up of financial needs due to years of low wages and inadequate social security provision (Griffiths, 2021). The future looks even bleaker at the time of writing, with the uplift and furlough having ended in autumn 2021, and food and fuel prices set to rise.

Our findings also report on the worsening of childcare issues in the pandemic, with parents worrying about the security of nursery places and facing the additional demands of home-schooling as well as caring for their children. Our research shows that this (unsurprisingly) fell more on women, who were less likely to be working and therefore more likely to be at home. This created justifiable anxiety about the impact on their children, especially in the light of insufficient funding to help children ‘catch up’ on lost learning (Coughlan and Sellgren, 2021). Overall, our findings show that family relationships and mental health were already under strain due to years of financial struggle, and for many the pandemic layered additional worries on top, cutting off vital support networks and increasing worry and insecurity.

However, as other researchers have found, there were not only experiences of significant and worsening difficulties (Power et al, 2020), but also some positive experiences in the pandemic which should not be overlooked. In our research, we found that a minority of parents who were furloughed did save money on work-related costs such as commuting, which could indicate a need for policy to more effectively support families with such costs. In addition, hearing the relief from some participants when their work-related conditionality was reduced temporarily in the pandemic shows a need for systems which are more empathetic to the needs of parents who have struggled over long periods to find decent and sustainable employment.

Also, for a few families, there were some more positive aspects in terms of family relationships, especially when male partners in two-parent households were able to experience more time at home due to being furloughed, resulting in some becoming more aware of their children’s needs and the rhythms of family life. This is borne out by authors in the Covid Realities grouping of research projects13 (see, for example, Tarrant et al, 2020). These experiences might have some positive implications in relation to social attitudes to the value of care and family time, and the role of the social security system and employment in supporting this, as well as for the gendered division of domestic labour.14 However, for this to happen, families need decent work and working hours and adequate financial resources, so that homes are not places full of worry and stress associated with managing work and care on low, and often volatile, incomes. Other research exploring the lives of working families during the pandemic recommends better workplace policies to encourage and support flexible work options (Working Families, 2020), and for fathers in particular, so that they can continue the more active engagement in care/household roles that some experienced in the pandemic (Chung et al, 2020).

In addition, our participants reported how communities tried to pick up the pieces: for example, by providing food. However, this could also be seen as demonstrating an increased acceptance of the state’s limited role in ensuring that even the most basic needs of parents with children are met. Scholars comment that bringing up children needs to be seen in the UK as a societal responsibility and part of social solidarity, rather than being left largely to parents (Faircloth, 2020). Governments need to ensure that families have enough money to buy food, rather than relying on charitable donations with their resulting stigma and inherent postcode lottery; and communities need government funding to provide wider societal support.

We did find evidence of more generous forms of support for families with children in Scotland, which were in existence prior to the pandemic, and very much appreciated by our participants. These provisions reflect Scotland’s greater commitment to tackling child poverty, described earlier. Also, in some other countries in Europe, more structured and generous support was put in place during the pandemic, such as introducing or extending pre-existing parental leave policies (Baptista et al, 2021). Thus, there are some lessons which could be learned from other countries and the devolved parts of the UK, especially Scotland, as well as from the positive experiences in the pandemic about how the state can better support families with children. However, in England at present, and so far as UK-wide provisions are concerned, the current government seems resistant to change. Thus the increased privatisation of parenting in the pandemic is not being reversed – and indeed threatens to be intensified, given the forthcoming financial pressures due to increases in fuel and food prices.

Notes

1

See https://familypolicyox.web.ox.ac.uk/ for the Oxford Family Policy database, which provides information on social policies for families in the UK in 1997–2016 (Daly and Borrell-Porta (2016).

2

The guidance has been updated recently, but the family test itself remains unchanged: www.gov.uk/government/publications/family-test-assessing-the-impact-of-policies-on-families/the-family-test; it applies only in England.

3

Early years education and childcare policy is devolved; the model described here is for England, unless otherwise specified. But in Scotland, from August 2021 the full 30 free hours’ entitlement was extended to all 3- and 4-year-olds regardless of whether their parents are working.

4

Key workers include those working in health and social care, education and childcare, key public services, local and national government, food and other necessary goods, public safety and national security, transport, utilities, communication and financial services. Within each category, key workers are defined; but in 2021, more were added to these definitions (university staff, for example).

5

Project number ES/R004811/1.

6

Dependent children are normally aged 0–16 years and must reside in the same household to be included in the Universal Credit claim. Teenagers aged 16–19 years may be included if they remain in full-time non-advanced education or approved training.

7

Since April 2018, families on Universal Credit only receive free school meals if their earned income is below £7,400 per year (although families already receiving them when they claim retain entitlement for a transitional period).

8

Universal Credit claimants who were single and under 25 received £344 as their monthly standard allowance, compared to £411.51 for single people aged 25 or over. Couples who were both under 25 received £490.60 (for both) compared with £596.58 for those in a couple where either partner was 25+. These rates applied from April 2021 but were reduced by £86.67 to their pre-pandemic amount when the uplift ended.

9

DLA provides non-means-tested help towards the extra costs of bringing up a disabled child (normally under 16).

10

People usually need a referral to access a food bank, for example from social services, a charity or Citizens Advice. Many food banks have limits on the number of times people can use them within a certain period.

11

Although there was a pause on some deductions during the first lockdown, many said they still had deductions (not only for advance payments) from their Universal Credit.

12

Lone parents are automatically the lead carer, but couples must choose one partner. A lead carer with a (youngest) child under one year is not required to be available for, or look for, work. At age one, there is a requirement to discuss work preparation with a work coach. At age two, an active programme of work preparation activities is required; and at age three or four, there is an expectation of work, or work search, of 16 hours per week, rising to 25 hours at ages 5–12, and 35 hours for those with children aged 13 and above (DWP, 2020).

13

See the Covid Realities Project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation: https://covidrealities.org.

14

See the Gender and COVID-19 Project and the Gender and COVID-19 Working Group: www.genderandcovid-19.org.

Funding

This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council under grant no. ES/R004811/1.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the Economic and Social Research Council for funding this study. We would also like to acknowledge the other members of the project team: Dr Rita Griffiths, Professor Jane Millar and Levana Magnus. They have been a great support as we have analysed the research material and developed the article. We would also like to thank the two referees whose comments were fair and helped to improve the article.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bradshaw, J., Bennett, F., Glendinning, C., Tunstall, R. and Bloor, K. (2021) ESPN Thematic Report: Social Protection and Inclusion Policy Responses to the COVID-19 Crisis: United Kingdom, Brussels: European Social Policy Network for European Commission.

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Canton, J. (2018) Coping with hard times: the role that support networks play for lone mother families in times of economic crisis and government austerity, Families, Relationships and Societies, 7(1): 2338. doi: 10.1332/204674316X14651146433919

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CPAG (Child Poverty Action Group) (2020) Low-income parents relying on Child Benefit for household basics, https://cpag.org.uk/news-blogs/news-listings/low-income-parents-relying-child-benefit-household-basics.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CPAG (2021) The cost of the school day: breaking down the financial barriers to education, https://cpag.org.uk/cost-of-the-school-day.

  • The Children’s Society (2020) The Wrong Blazer 2020: Time for Action on School Uniform Costs, London: The Children’s Society.

  • Chung, H., Seo, H., Forbes, S. and Birkett, H. (2020) Working from Home During the COVID-19 Lockdown: Changing Preferences and the Future of Work, Canterbury: University of Birmingham and University of Kent.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cooper, K. and Hills, J. (2021) The Conservative Governments’ Record on Social Security: Policies, Spending and Outcomes, May 2015 to Pre-COVID 2020, SPDO Research Summary February 2021, London: Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, London School of Economics and Political Science, https://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/case/spdo/spdorp10.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cooper, K. and Stewart, K. (2021) Does household income affect children’s outcomes? A systematic review of the evidence, Child Indicators Research, 14: 9811005. doi: 10.1007/s12187-020-09782-0

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Covid Realities Project (2021) More, please, for those with less: why we need to go further on the Universal Credit uplift [blog], 5 March, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/covid-realities-uc.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Coughlan, S. and Sellgren, K. (2021) School catch-up tsar resigns over lack of funding, BBC News, 2 June, www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-57335558.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cribb, J., Norris Keiller, A. and Waters, T. (2018) Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality in the UK: 2018, London: Institute for Fiscal Studies.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Daly, M. (2010) Shifts in family policy in the UK under New Labour, Journal of European Social Policy, 20(5): 43343. doi: 10.1177/0958928710380480

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Daly, M. (2014) Introduction. Parenting support in European countries: a complex development in social policy, Social Policy and Society, 14(4): 59395. doi: 10.1017/S1474746415000317

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Daly, M. and Borrell-Porta, M. (2016) Oxford family policy database, https://familypolicyox.web.ox.ac.uk.

  • Daly, M. and Bray, R. (2015) Parenting support in England: the bedding down of a new policy, Social Policy and Society, 14(4): 63344. doi: 10.1017/S1474746415000214

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DCLG (Department for Communities and Local Government) (2014) Understanding Troubled Families, London: DCLG.

  • DH (Department of Health) (2012) Family Nurse Partnership Information Leaflet, London: TSO.

  • DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) (2020) Universal credit: your responsibilities, www.gov.uk/universal-credit/your-responsibilities.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Edmiston, D., Baumberg Geiger, B., Scullion, L., Ingold, J. and Summers, K. (2020) Despite the suspension of conditionality, benefit claimants are already looking for work [blog], 29 June, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/conditionality-covid19.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Eisenstadt, N. and Oppenheim, C. (2020) Sure Start, early childhood, education and care, in J. Tucker (ed) 2020 Vision: Ending Child Poverty for Good, London: Child Poverty Action Group, pp 559.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • European Commission (2013) Commission Recommendation: Investing in Children: Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage, Brussels: European Commission COM (2013) 778 final.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • European Commission (2017) Taking Stock of the 2013 Recommendation on ‘Investing in Children: Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage’, Brussels: Commission Staff Working Document, SWD (2017) 258 final.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Faircloth, C. (2020) Parenting and social solidarity in cross-cultural perspective, Families, Relationships and Societies, 9(1): 14359. doi: 10.1332/204674319X15668430693616

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Foster, D. (2021) Coronavirus: childcare FAQs, Briefing number 8872, 8 January, House of Commons Library.

  • Gallagher, A. (2018) The business of care: marketization and the new geographies of childcare, Progress in Human Geography, 42(5): 706722. doi: 10.1177/0309132517702970

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gillies, V. (2020) Parallels and ruptures in the neoliberal intensive parenting regime, Families, Relationships and Societies, 9(1): 16972. doi: 10.1332/204674319X15592172099833

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Griffiths, R. (2021) Complexities for Claimants: The Reality of the £20 Weekly Uplift to Universal Credit, Bath: Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Griffiths, R., Wood, M., Bennett, F. and Millar, J. (2020) Unchartered Territory: Universal Credit, Couples and Money, Bath: Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Griffiths, R., Wood, M., Bennett, F. and Millar, J. (2022) Couples Navigating Work, Care and Universal Credit, Bath: Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hill, K., Hirsch, D. and Davis, A. (2020) The role of social support networks in helping low income families through uncertain times, Social Policy and Society, 20(1): 1732. doi: 10.1017/S1474746420000184

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Institute for Government (2020) Local government funding in England, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/explainers/local-government-funding-england.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kamerman, S.B. and Kahn, A.J. (eds) (1978) Family Policy: Government and Families in Fourteen Countries, New York: Columbia University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kobakhidze, M.N., Hui, J., Chui, J. and González, A. (2021) Research disruptions, new opportunities: Re-imagining qualitative interview study during the COVID-19 pandemic, International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 20: 110. doi: 10.1177/16094069211051576

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lister, R. and Bennett, F. (2010) The new ‘champion of progressive ideals’? Cameron’s Conservative Party: poverty, family policy and welfare reform, Renewal, 18(1/2): 84109.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Page, G., Power, M. and Patrick, R. (2021) Uniform mistakes: the costs of going back to school, Covid Realities Rapid-Response report, https://mk0nuffieldfounpg9ee.kinstacdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/CovidRealities-UniformMistakes.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • 1 University of Bath, UK
  • | 2 University of Oxford, UK

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