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.

Executive Summary

This summary sets out the key findings from qualitative research evaluating a range of policies and support that were delivered during the COVID-19 pandemic. It looks at how this support impacted on the finances and wellbeing of low income households. The findings cover the first twenty months of the COVID-19 pandemic, from March 2020 to November 2021.

The main focus of the research was on the lived experiences of six family types who are at greater risk of poverty: lone parents; families with a baby under one; families with three or more children; families with a disabled family member; young mothers (aged under 25); and minority ethnic families. The research also included the experiences of families on low incomes but above the threshold for relative poverty and of single people and couples (aged under 30) on low incomes.

The fieldwork took place between mid-September and early December 2021. It involved semi-structured interviews carried out remotely with 60 people. These participants came from households with a range of characteristics; the majority were households with children.

Were low income households aware of the support available to them (particularly cash based support)? If so, how?

Participants found the information they needed through various channels, including the UK and Scottish Government news broadcasts and central and local government websites. These sources provided information about both the pandemic and the range of financial and other support available.

Participants preferred to get advice and information from places they already knew and trusted. This was mainly schools, nurseries and local authorities. Some participants had approached local authorities directly for information via phone or email, but there was little awareness of the National Assistance Helpline.

Participants without children were less likely than those with children to actively seek out advice. They often hadn't had much contact with public and third sector services before and they often didn't know how to engage with these services.

How did low income households access the range of support?

Much of the key financial support was received through the same route by which people received benefit payments. This included the weekly £20 Universal Credit increase and any other Scottish Government funded COVID-related payments for families with children eligible for free school meals.

Specialist third sector organisations were important for people whose family members had additional needs. This included people with mental health issues, lone parents or people seeking to escape domestic abuse. Assistance mentioned by participants included help with claims for social security payments and other charitable payments and emotional support.

Food banks were a source of support for many participants experiencing financial hardship. This included both households with and without children. Community based organisations were another source of practical support, such as providing food, clothes, toys, essential household goods, or cash grants.

How did this support help them during the pandemic?

For most participants, dealing with the challenges of the pandemic came on top of the day to day realities of living on a low income. Participants' own accounts showed that those who had experienced serious or severe financial hardship for some time before the pandemic were very skilled at 'getting by'. Despite this, people often felt they were having to manage on insufficient resources. Many people had real concerns about having what they needed going forward.

The temporary £20 weekly increase in Universal Credit was generally seen as the most valuable extra financial support. This was especially the case for people who were not eligible for Scottish Child Payment Bridging Payments and those at risk of severe financial hardship. Many people were concerned about losing the Universal Credit £20 increase, and how they would make ends meet without it.

Both the Universal Credit increase and the various COVID-related payments played a very important role in helping households cope. The payments reduced the financial difficulties that came from using more food and energy through working from home, higher food and energy prices, and the extra costs of schooling and entertaining children at home.

The care and support provided by schools and nurseries was hugely valued by parents, especially during the first lockdown.

How did households find the process of applying for or receiving support?

Universal Credit was the most often mentioned financial support and the process of applying for it was often quite straightforward. However, some people claiming Universal Credit for the first time did experience delays in receiving their first payments. Claiming disability benefits in particular was sometimes complicated, lengthy and stressful. Delays left some struggling to manage their finances and falling into debt.

Participants who had been furloughed generally felt this system had worked well. This included people who had to budget carefully because their employer had not topped up their wage.

In terms of additional payments triggered by free school meal eligibility, while participants remembered receiving one or more of these payments from their local authority, they were rarely clear about the specific reason for each payment. The fact that most COVID-related payments were automatic was seen as a good thing. Some participants thought that otherwise they might have missed out.

Participants with children that were eligible for free school meals appreciated the change to direct payments to cover school meals. They felt that this gave parents more choice and control, especially around cultural and other dietary needs.

What were the barriers to taking up support for different households?

A few participants had not got the advice and financial support they needed. The most commonly reported barrier was waiting times to access mainstream information and advice services.

Self-employed people and small business owners were among those in the greatest financial difficulty. This was usually either because they did not understand what support they could get and/or because they had difficulty getting it. This included advice on benefits and help understanding temporary changes in who was eligible for support. Participants with limited English found this particularly difficult.

Some participants found it harder to find out about the support available because they were not digitally connected. Those most affected were people with limited English, people in areas with a poor internet connection or mobile signal, and people in severe financial hardship.

Information and advice that met the language and cultural needs of people from minority ethnic groups could be difficult to find. This may have meant that some people lost out on available support.

What gaps in support were there for different types of households (specifically the child poverty priority families, those with protected characteristics, and families in more than one of these categories)?

Participants who had been through major life changes such as the death of a partner, relationship breakdown or the onset of serious illness for them or a close family member reflected on how these events had affected them. They reflected on how some services had been delivered and how this had affected them. Difficulties getting access to services, lack of face-to-face communication and concerns around the quality of the service were mentioned.

Some people felt that more could have been done to help them with the extra costs of having children at home. These were mainly lone parent families whose earnings took them above the cut-off point for free school meals and COVID-related payments. It included participants who lost eligibility for free school meals because they transferred from Tax Credits to Universal Credit or who had increased their working hours.

For some participants in low paid work, a reduction in Universal Credit meant that they didn't receive much of their one-off bonus payments from employers. This made them feel that their work and the extra costs they had faced to keep working throughout the pandemic were not appreciated.

In-school or nursery places were available for children of key workers or vulnerable children but were not always taken up. Stigma and fear of infection were two reasons. However, when parents had taken up the opportunity, it had worked well and provided valuable support. Children had often preferred being at school and parents had fewer childcare arrangements to make and were under less pressure around home schooling.

Families with a child with complex needs were under particular pressure having lost their formal care as well as their informal support networks made up of wider family and friends. Parents sometimes felt that those providing health and other support services did not always fully appreciate the additional pressures that COVID had put on families.

Some participants had trouble finding food and other essentials, at affordable prices, especially during the first lockdown. Supermarket delivery slots were often hard to get and families with a disabled member or who had significant health issues often found supermarket shopping difficult.

Some families lacked enough indoor space to meet the different needs of everyone in the family. This included where adults were working from home at the same time as children were being home schooled. Not having a private outdoor space meant that some children did not have a safe place to play.

What did people think the impacts of the support they received were?

Participants generally said that the financial support they received reduced their financial difficulties. It meant that they didn't have to cut back on essentials as much or take on debt. It also eased their worries about managing through the pandemic.

Even so, all participants experienced stress and anxiety during the pandemic. The single biggest source of worry was around isolation and schools closing and the harmful impact this was having on their children's education, emotional growth and mental health.



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