COVID Realities – Mobilizing UK Parents and Carers on a Low Income
In October 2021, households across the UK faced one of the biggest cuts to social security rates in recent history. The government reversed a 20 pound-per-week benefit to universal credit that had been introduced during the pandemic. This benefit cut is now projected to plunge a further half a million people, including 200,000 children, into poverty. The irony of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s platform of ‘leveling up’ seems to have been lost on him. In some cases, the extra 20 pound-per-week benefit kept many struggling families from relying on food banks, where recipients often feel demeaned. Their experiences were documented in a partnership between researchers, parents, carers, and the charity Child Poverty Action Group, who have been collectively advocating for policies that would allow people to nourish and support their families. Despite the recent cut to the UK’s social security, caregivers on low incomes have succeeded in voicing their overlooked realities to policy makers in the public. Today, we will learn more about this transformative power in a project called COVID Realities.
Our guest today is Dr. Kayleigh Garthwaite, a researcher who has been working on the COVID Realities project since April 2020. She’s an associate professor in social policy at the University of Birmingham, and a trustee of the Independent Food Aid Network in the UK.
Kayleigh, can you tell me about your project, and how it has engaged people with lived expertise?
The COVID Realities research program has been documenting the everyday experiences of families with children on a low income during the pandemic across the UK. The projects involved a collaboration between parents and carers themselves with dependent children, and researchers from the Universities of York and Birmingham and the Child Poverty Action Group. The largest element of COVID Realities has consisted of online participatory research with over a hundred parents and carers living on a low income.
As a research team, we had expertise in conducting participatory research before, but not online. So, this was a whole new experience for us and we had to constantly adapt and be flexible about the new online context that we found ourselves working in. So, we took an approach that was very much led by participants at each stage of the research process. So, from design to dissemination, and by keeping online diaries, and responding to prerecorded audio questions, and participating in virtual discussion groups every month, parents have been sharing their experiences with us. It’s been really important to us that an ethics of care was embedded in the research process. We made sure to prioritize time for communication with participants, involving regular engagement and email contact, but also maintaining the human touches that are really important in the offline participatory space. We sent participants welcome packs upon signing up to the project, and that included things such as pens and notepad and small food items. And we also did this for each online discussion group. So participants would be sent a snack pack in the post that had tea and coffee sachets, biscuits, something in there for the kids as well. And anything that could be required for the meeting, like Post-Its or pens. In many ways, carrying out online participatory research allowed us to connect with people across the UK in ways that might not have been possible if we were working in a face to face space. We were really aware of issues around digital exclusion. So, we did try and make sure that we offered support both practical and financial for participants who wanted to join in and get involved.
Kayleigh, I think it’s lovely how your project has maintained that human touch throughout, especially in digital spaces in the midst of a pandemic. You’ve also made really important connections there between interpersonal and institutional care, which is what we’re not seeing in many spaces used by people living in poverty, which leads me to my next question. So, in your research you’ve also examined the stigma experienced in food banks, and as a result of the social security system in the UK. Can you also tell us about how the COVID Realities project has helped to break this stigma?
Our novel participatory online approach has been really effective, I think, in bringing new and vital voices into policymaking, and major discussions about social security and poverty during the pandemic. And here, participation means so much more than just giving voice or creating opportunities for storytelling. It’s about creating spaces where we can bring the expertise of direct lived experience into conversation with different forms of expertise, such as academic, campaigning, policy making, to generate policy recommendations that are rooted and that grow from these diverse forms of knowledge. So, through the project, parents that are experiencing poverty during the pandemic came together. They shared their experiences, but they also developed and co-produced recommendations for change. People spoke of their hardship, but they also spoke about a real willingness to be part of change making processes. They wanted better not only for themselves, but for families in similar positions, and also for future generations.
I just want to give a couple of examples from participants. So, Meg was a divorced mother of three who was receiving disability benefits. She wrote in her diary, “it gives my life meaning and purpose to campaign for those who feel unable to speak up for themselves, many of whom don’t realize how shabbily they’re being treated by the current and previous governments. I don’t do it for reward or recognition, just to try and make a difference, and in return I have gained a huge family of fellow participants with whom I feel much love and solidarity.”
So, taking part in COVID Realities and sharing experiences was not only a source of solidarity for parents and carers, but also resistance, and represented a corrective to stigmatizing narratives for many parents and carers on a low income. So, this quote from Victoria sets out her hopes for the research program and what being involved in COVID Realities meant to her. Victoria says, “a study like this will be part of our history. It’ll be part of university papers and archives. Students will read our experiences, as I once read and studied about the history of the welfare state, how the government failed its people. People like to look back on history and read the diaries of real people, telling their real stories and experiences of the troubles that history books marked by debts and policies. To the future people who read this study, who read about the plights of us low income families, know that a thank you for taking time to look back on our nation’s past, and heed this, learn from our mistakes, value your undervalued. Maybe one day my children or grandchildren might read this study, might see these articles. Maybe someone will read about the woman who cries over bread. Perhaps people can learn from our voices. I’d be happy to be a whisper in history if in the future, no one is left fearing homelessness or starvation. We have the resources. I hope the future will be more empathetic.”
Now you’ve also done extensive research and work with people who’ve experienced poverty and food insecurity, including caregivers. And in a previous episode with Hannah Lambie Mumford, we learned that cutbacks to social security have led to the rise of food bank use over the past 10 years. Can you tell me about why families and caregivers are especially vulnerable to poverty, and in particular food insecurity?
So, we know that before the pandemic, more and more people in the UK were accessing food via food banks because they had inadequate income. But COVID 19 has really amplified those longstanding socio-economic and health inequalities. It has also exposed the fragility of the UK’s social security system; the growing reliance by so many people on charitable food provision in the form of food parcels, community food hubs; and also the sharing of excess and waste food from retailers. Food was a persistent and unavoidable cost for overstretched families in COVID Realities. Some were helped by free school meals during school term times, but even here eligibility criteria could be variable. So, the evidence shows us that up to a million UK families in poverty are actually ineligible for free school meals altogether, whilst others may choose not to claim them because of stigmatizing processes around them, and families were often relying on, but immensely grateful for food charity, as Eric, a single dad of one, receiving personal independence payments and disability living allowance told us.
Eric said, “since shortly after the first lockdown started we’ve been receiving help from a local food bank with weekly food parcels, which we could not have managed without and are extremely grateful for. We’re only obtaining this help as my daughter attends Young Carers and told them that I was struggling to buy food due to a lack of money and find it hard to leave home due to a fear of catching COVID 19 and being unable to care for her, as I have no real help or support from family or friends.”
So, having to access a food bank to secure food for themselves and their children was something that was described as a lifeline by parents and carers, but really importantly, what the family’s also told us is that there are many problems with this form of charitable provision. So, not only is it stigmatizing to have to ask for food aid, but the food received is often inadequate to meet people’s needs, and in some cases it’s inedible. Charitable Food Aid deprives people of agency and choice. People must take what they’re offered and make the best of it, rather than making their own decisions about what they and the family actually want to eat. Victoria, a mother of two children and a domestic abuse survivor, experienced guilt and shame when receiving inedible food.
She told us, “it’s emotionally difficult to think that I’ve been reduced to asking for stale and moldy bread. I feel guilty for needing to access such assistance. I feel guilty for binning some of the produce, given my logic, being that food poisoning could weaken my kidney’s immune systems, and make them more at risk of the virus. Better to go without bread than to risk getting ill by it. And I feel shame. At that moment I felt disgusted at myself. What kind of mother does it make me?”
Emergency food aid, then, is a sticking plaster for the problem of poverty. We need to refocus the corrective lens away from increasing the number of food banks, and towards campaigning for a bolder and better social security system that works for everybody. In the work of the Independent Food Aid Network in the UK is important here. IFAN is campaigning for a cash first approach that prioritizes working alongside local authorities to ensure that cash and not vouchers or charitable provision is the first response. This approach then prioritizes dignity and choice, and hopefully goes somewhere to reducing the stigma that is so often associated with having to access food aid.