Coronavirus (COVID-19) support in low income households: evaluation

Qualitative research evaluating a range of policies and support that were delivered during the COVID-19 pandemic. The research looks at how this support impacted on the finances and wellbeing of low income households.

8. Conclusions

This final chapter sets out the main conclusions from this research. It addresses each of the 10 research questions posed by the Scottish Government.

How do low income households say that they have been managing since the pandemic began and what are the key issues that they have been facing (in all areas of their lives, including in terms of wellbeing as well as financially)?

Participants had experienced the pandemic in different ways. Despite this, their resilience, resourcefulness and determination to get their family through the pandemic shone through. In particular, participants' own accounts confirmed that those who had experienced serious or severe financial hardship for some time prior to the pandemic were adept and creative at managing on a limited budget and 'getting by'.

For some, the experience of home-working, furlough and home-learning had been positive, having strengthened family bonds and improved the wellbeing of both adults and children. Some parents said that they had been able to identify their child's previously undetected educational or support needs. Meanwhile others said the reduced stress of attending school every day had benefitted children with autism or other learning difficulties.

Nonetheless, all participants experienced emotional stress and anxiety during the pandemic. Anxieties tended to centre on practical issues such as money worries, the difficulties of juggling work and childcare, especially if it involved non home-based shift work, and keeping vulnerable relatives safe. The single biggest source of anxiety, however, was around isolation and school closures and the detrimental impact this was having on the education, emotional growth and mental health of children and teenagers.

Participants whose household had additional needs that pre-dated the pandemic faced far greater challenges in coping during this time. Such households included those with a: disabled adult or child; a person with an underlying health condition; a child with special educational needs; and / or adults with limited English. Likewise, households that experienced a major change in circumstance, such as relationship breakdown, unemployment or bereavement, immediately prior to, or during the pandemic, struggled to remain resilient in the face of the shock and upheaval such changes created.

For both groups of households, these challenges often stemmed from, or were compounded by, difficulties in accessing health and support services they required and delays in receipt of state benefits, resulting in considerable financial and psychological distress.

How did people become aware of the support available and what sources of information were used?

Participants generally said that the information they needed – both about the pandemic and the range of financial and other forms of support available – had reached them through various channels, often without them having to go looking for it. The channels included UK and Scottish Government press conferences and central and local government online sites. Some had accessed social media online sites, but they tended to be selective in how they used such resources due to risk of misinformation. Awareness and use of the National Assistance Helpline was minimal among participants.

Where participants actively sought information and advice, there was a clear preference for accessing advice information from known and trusted sources. For most, this meant schools, nurseries and local authorities. Households with additional needs also tended to seek supplementary and bespoke advice from 'specialist' third sector organisations.

Participants without children were less inclined to actively seek out advice. In contrast to those with children, they typically had limited prior contact with public and third sector services and tended to be unfamiliar with how to, or hesitant to, contact them.

How was the process of seeking and applying for financial and other support?

For participants whose household had no additional needs, the process of applying for Universal Credit was relatively straightforward. That said, those claiming for the first time could find the process daunting and one or two struggled to supply all the necessary documentation. Some were also slow to apply for social security for a variety of reasons, including those who assumed they could somehow muddle through at the start of the pandemic.

For households that contained someone with additional needs, claiming social security could be a more complex, lengthy and fraught experience. For those who were unfit for work or disabled, postponed and delayed assessments often meant participants failed to obtain the support they needed to meet the extra costs of poor health or disability for many months.

Participants who had been furloughed generally felt this system had worked well, including those who had to budget carefully because their employer had not topped up their wage. Few participants were self-employed, but their experience suggests this is a group of people that could find it very difficult to get the highly specific and tailored advice they needed. This included advice on social security benefits and the implications of the temporary adjustments to the eligibility rules.

Many participants received additional COVID-related payments funded by the Scottish Government, primarily those with children that were eligible for free school meals. While participants could recall receiving one or more such payments from their local authority, they were rarely clear about the specific reason for each payment.

Delays in social security and other payments left some struggling to manage their finances and falling into arrears or debt, even after taking payment holidays. A particular frustration for those making a new claim for Universal Credit, was the time it took to receive the first payment, which often extended beyond the five week 'wait' period. This was exacerbated by the fact that these households, and indeed most other participant households, had only limited buffers, such as money, food or other household essentials, going into the pandemic. Although DWP offer advance payments, these were not popular because repayment conditions could draw families into debt.

While some had managed to clear some or all of their debts once benefit and other payments were received, the pressure of running up and servicing debt had added to their stress and anxiety at an already difficult time.

What are the enablers in accessing financial and other support?

The ability to access online information and advice about the availability of financial and other support and how to apply for it, worked reasonably well for most participants. It did not, however, remove the need for information and advice to be provided in different formats.

The largely automatic nature of COVID-related payments was viewed positively, with participants indicating they might otherwise have missed out. Without speaking to local authorities, however, it is not possible to explore whether arrangements ensured people eligible for, but not in receipt, of qualifying benefits, such as free school meals, received these payments or not.

Specialist third sector organisations were an important enabler for participants whose family had additional needs, especially in terms of claiming social security payments and additional charitable payments. Participants praised these organisations for their flexible, responsive and determined approach to ensuring people got the financial and other support they were entitled to.

Participants with children that were eligible for free school meals were appreciative of the efforts schools had gone to provide packed lunches and other meal replacements at the start of the pandemic. However, the shift to direct payments to cover school meals was much preferred as they gave parents greater choice and control, not least on cultural and other dietary needs.

What are the barriers in accessing financial support and other services?

The most commonly reported barriers to accessing support centred around the difficulties of trying to contact 'mainstream' information and advice services and other organisations. Some reported long waiting times to get an appointment and poor follow up, which in some instances had delayed their access to financial support.

Reductions in public transport and fears about being exposed to the virus pushed some to travel by private taxi to work, especially shift workers. Likewise people used taxis to attend hospital and other health-related appointments or opted not to attend these appointments.

Limited public transport and restricted access to home delivery services for people of working age also added to the difficulties some faced in accessing food, medical supplies and other essentials. This was a particular issue for lone parents during lockdowns, when they were unable to call on relatives to care for their children while they shopped.

A small minority of participants had slipped through the cracks and failed to secure the advice and financial support they needed. This raises questions about whether the move to remote delivery and the lack of in-person contact has compromised the quality of advice and support for participants with more complex or distinctive needs or for those that struggle with digital connectivity.

More specifically, information and advice that was sensitive to the linguistic and cultural needs of people from minority ethnic groups could be difficult to source, leaving participants feeling bewildered and unsupported. Those who were self-employed or ran small family businesses, often in sectors of the economy worst hit by the pandemic, struggled to obtain good advice and support tailored to their specific circumstances. In one or two instances, this had led their household into a very precarious financial position, akin to destitution.

Who/what were key support pillars, specific people/services? How did this vary across different households?

Schools, nurseries and local authorities were the most trusted and most widely used services for households seeking advice and support.

Families felt schools and nurseries had not only helped with home schooling but had offered advice and other support that had helped to ease their money worries. Those that were eligible appreciated the provision of alternatives to free school meals as well as the provision of laptops and other learning tools that enabled their children to get online and learn. Pastoral care from teachers was also viewed very positively.

Food banks were a commonly reported source of support for participants experiencing severe financial hardship, both with and without children. Community based organisations were another reported source of practical support, such as the provision of food, clothes, toys, basic household goods, or cash grants.

For those with additional needs, advice and support from specialist third sector organisations could be critical. This included organisations that offered tailored advice for people with mental health issues, lone parents or people seeking to escaping domestic abuse.

Strong family and social networks helped households at risk of financial hardship to manage through the pandemic. However, lockdowns severely constrained the sorts of support members of their wider family and social network could provide. The loss of informal support during lockdown was most problematic for lone parents and participants who were disabled or had a disabled family member. For instance, the loss of childcare by grandparents was keenly felt by lone parents, especially those with babies and children who could not be left alone.

A few participants were positive about their experience of liaising with the DWP and the support they received to claim benefits or make changes to their existing social security benefits.

Faith communities have been identified in previous studies as a trusted source of information and advice. However, they were rarely, if ever, referred to as a key support pillar by participants in this research.

Was the financial support received used to maintain minimum living standards/pay for essential household bills or did it allow for other improvements (such as easing access to job market due to caring needs being covered, wellbeing improvements, or other?)

The temporary £20 weekly uplift to Universal Credit and Tax Credits was generally viewed as the single most important source of additional financial support, largely because it was paid regularly over an extended period. This was especially the case for those ineligible for Scottish Child Payment Bridging Payments and for those at risk of severe financial hardship.

Both the social security uplift and the various COVID-related payments were felt to play a pivotal role in sustaining household resilience and had eased many participants' fears about how they would manage through the pandemic. The payments had collectively eased the financial strain of rising food and energy consumption, food and energy price inflation, and the extra costs of schooling and entertaining children at home. They had also reduced the need to cut back on essentials or take on debt to purchase essential goods such as children's shoes or cover unexpected costs such as replacing broken household appliances.

While participants perceived that the £20 uplift and COVID-related payments had had a positive impact on wellbeing to the extent it reduced financial worries, these payments were not considered to have had any impact on their ability to access the job market. Indeed the extended school closures had compelled a couple of participants to give up work in order to look after their children.

Were improvements attributed to the financial support/service or would they have happened anyway through other routes?

In a study of this nature, it is not possible to assess the likely net additional effect of the different sources of support or what would have happened in their absence. However, participants generally felt that the financial support they received lessened the financial strain of rising costs, reduced the need to cut back on essentials or take on debt to pay for goods, and eased fears about managing through the pandemic. In contrast, participants were very apprehensive about how they would make ends meet following the ending of the £20 uplift in October 2021.

How did the support received help/hinder respondents to follow pandemic guidance (isolation, Test and Protect)?

Too few participants reported having been in receipt of a Self-Isolation Support Grant of £500 or made mention of being in receipt of shielding support to offer any meaningful insight as to what role such support may have played in assisting people to follow Scottish Government pandemic guidance.

Were there any other areas where people would have welcomed further support?

Participants generally viewed the UK and Scottish Government's response to the pandemic very positively, especially those who benefitted from furlough.

Many felt that their household lacked sufficient resources, both before and following the onset of the pandemic. Not surprisingly therefore, when asked what additional support would be welcome, an increase in financial support was the key priority.

Some families whose earnings took them above the cut-off point for free school meals, and thus free laptops and COVID-related payments, felt more could have been done to help them with the additional costs of having children at home. This mainly applied to lone parents and included participants who lost eligibility for free school meals because they transferred from Tax Credits to Universal Credit during the pandemic or because they had increased their working hours.

For some participants in low paid work, the fact that one-off bonus payments by employers was largely offset by a reduction in Universal Credit reinforced the perception that their work and the additional costs they had incurred in order to keep working throughout the pandemic were not appreciated.

Elsewhere, parents' apprehensions about the system of support for children with additional support or educational needs had increased since the pandemic. In particular, they felt that there was a need for swifter assessment and diagnosis and better access to a range of support services to help children with additional support needs sustain their developmental, educational and social growth.



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