With the return to stricter measures including home schooling, the early 2021 lockdown will bring all the challenges to low income families that they experienced last Spring, but four factors will make it even harder for many to cope. More families are out of work and having to rely on an inadequate safety net. For those with work, less furloughing could make it even harder to manage having children at home. Finances will be more depleted after Christmas and living costs this winter will mount up.
It has been widely recognised that while the pandemic is a storm that has affected us all, we are crucially not all in the same boat. Our ongoing research tracking low income families, who have been at the sharp end of a decade of austerity policies, helps us understand how they experienced tough new challenges after last March, and what kind of support they will need to help cope with the new pressures that they face now.
First of all, many more have become unemployed, having to rely on out-of-work benefits. Some of those placed on furlough at the beginning of the pandemic have gone on to lose their jobs, with hospitality and retail being the hardest hit sectors, making 370,000 people redundant between August and October 2020. Safety-net benefits typically fall about 40% short of what families require to meet their minimum needs. The £20 uplift for Universal Credit has provided a welcome boost for some, but not for those relying on the ‘legacy’ benefits that UC replaces, and the future of this bonus is uncertain. Even with this uplift included, out-of-work families remain far short of what they need.
For those families who do keep their jobs, having children at home presents a huge challenge. For some of the families we are following, a benign result of furloughing in the first lockdown was that they were able to manage homeschooling more easily while keeping a wage. This time round, on-site jobs in manufacturing and building will continue, creating new pressures for some families in balancing work and family commitments.
A crucial limitation in helping children at home has been a lack of adequate technologies. Access to digital support did not reach nearly as many families as it should have done in the first lockdown, with some children being unable to access online learning or having to do school work on mobile phones. Now, it is essential that the Government delivers on its promise of getting more laptops to those who need them, as during the first lockdown a lack of sufficient technology impeded learning for 39% of secondary school children eligible for free school meals in comparison to 19% of those not eligible for free school meals. Together with the Get Help with Tech scheme, offering free mobile data, it may be possible to mitigate the impact of digital exclusion for children without sufficient access, but only if commitments are followed through and such support actually reaches those in need.
For any prolonged economic crisis, the cumulative depletion of family finances is likely to make things ever tougher over time. The present lockdown could not have come at a worse time, as not only are many families already in financial difficulty because of the pandemic, but the lockdown in January 2021 immediately follows the Christmas holidays, when families may have been under pressure to buy presents and extra food to make the holiday season special after such a tough year. Although spending at Christmas was forecast to be lower than normal as a result of the pandemic, some family budgets will have been stretched to the limit.
Finally, winter will bring additional costs. Even in warm weather of last Spring, parents have told us that electricity bills went up during lockdown with increased use of electronic devices. Now, in bleak midwinter, with more people confined at home, families face high heating bills. In past years, the hardest-pressed parents have told us of cutting back on these costs where necessary by turning the heating off while children were at school. With schools shut, this is no longer an option.
Food costs will also remain a challenge to the most disadvantaged families when children are not in school. The vouchers given to children on free school meals in the first lockdown were greatly welcome. In this latest lockdown however, the national voucher scheme was not initially available with much public frustration in the first few weeks of lockdown that families were offered food parcels instead and issues around the adequacy of the contents. It is essential that vouchers are again made widely available to parents.
The provision of a Covid winter grant scheme is recognition that times are tough – allowing local authorities to provide food vouchers over the Christmas holidays and for some families a grant towards utility bills. This and other public support to address these challenges – furloughing, food vouchers, the UC uplift – have been welcome and essential, but are not enough. Some forms of support, like help with technology, have yet to be effectively delivered, and how far the winter grant scheme meets families’ additional heating costs during a further extended lockdown remains to be seen. More broadly, the central, longer term challenge is to improve the value of safety net incomes, which remain woefully inadequate.
The New Economic Foundation predicts that 34% of the population will be living below the Minimum Income Standard by April 2021, a figure which has risen from a quarter of the population a decade ago. Furthermore, the removal of the uplift would leave almost three-quarters of UC claimants with deficit budgets, and 6.2 million families £1040 worse off a year. Although vaccines are being rolled out and a return to some sort of ‘normal’ is potentially on the horizon, a decisive improvement in social protection is urgently needed if we are to enable these families to manage this next lockdown with greater ease, and to move towards the future with more hope.
Ruth Webber is a Research Associate at the Centre for Research in Social Policy, at Loughborough University.
Disclaimer: All blogs express the views of the author(s), and not of the SPA.