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Struggling families crave stability in uncertain times, study shows

Over a third of families (more than 2 million households) in the UK are earning below the minimum income needed for an acceptable living standard.

This is among the key findings of a unique study into the life of families unable to afford a minimum household budget, produced by Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Social Policy (CRSP) for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF).

The Falling Short study takes a new look at life on a low income, starting not from the perspective of poverty and hardship but from a more positive description of what it is to participate in society and meet your needs. Researchers talked in depth to 30 families with incomes lower than the Minimum Income Standard (MIS). MIS is calculated by CRSP and is used to assess what income households require in order to buy the things that the public consider essential for an acceptable standard of living.

The study shows:

  • Parents generally work hard to make the most of a low income, looking around for deals, juggling money to pay bills and constantly keeping their eye on their spending. This can be highly stressful and time consuming; one mother in the study said she spends two hours a day planning her budget and comparing prices
  • Instability of pay and benefits (in and out of work) make it particularly hard to manage. Those with irregular work and zero hours contracts were particularly frustrated by the lack of stability, which caused fluctuating income from both pay and benefits
  • Uncertainties arise for the growing number of families who rent their homes privately; up from around 10% to nearly a quarter in the past two decades. Parents are worried by the lack of security and the risk that they may have to move, and would much prefer social housing  
  • Having support from wider family is a key advantage for some families. Grandparents contribute both to helping look after children and enabling parents to increase earnings from work, avoiding high childcare costs. They are also helping out when there is a crisis or helping fund a holiday, children’s activities or trips out. This could make a big difference to family living standards
  • Families in this study commonly had at least one member with a physical or mental health condition, and this can affect their living standards. It restricts the capacity to earn of someone in ill health themselves or caring for a sick child, as well as bringing substantial extra costs – for example, from additional transport requirements, or because they find it hard to get out and shop around for the best deals.

The study also found that parents are generally willing to go without things to protect their children from the consequences of low income. Some say they cannot remember when they last went out socially as a couple; others that they rarely buy clothes for themselves. In more extreme cases, parents miss meals when money is short so that their children do not go without.

Katherine Hill, Senior Research Associate at CRSP and lead author of the study, said: “Our study shows that parents with too little income are under constant pressure, but that some cope with it better than others. This is partly influenced by personal skills like the ability to budget, but there are many factors that are beyond parents’ control. Things are particularly hard for those without wider family support, for those having to cope with family illness, and for people seeking to clear a long-term debt.

“To make progress in coping with low income, families above all need some stability. In particular, they need a steady income and housing security that allows them to plan for the future. They need to be able to rely on affordable childcare and work arrangements to fit around children, rather than only being able to work where extended family members are available or have their earnings eaten up by childcare costs.

“The UK is entering uncertain times, but if the newly formed government wants to ensure that the worst-off families can improve their lives, they need to help make their work opportunities, housing, childcare and benefits more secure.” 

Read the full report on the study here.

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