The research, from the Centre for Research in Social Policy (CRSP) at Loughborough University, funded by Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has followed a group of low-income families over the past six years, negotiating a changing world that has successively experienced austerity, Covid, and now escalating inflation.
Insecure work, low and fluctuating incomes from work and benefits, and managing health and family needs, meant that stability could be hard to find even before Covid.
These families have found it hard trying to cope not only with the limitations of low income itself, but with being unable to plan and progress their lives when they are living with everyday uncertainty and an unpredictable future.
Managing through the pandemic was tough but families greatly appreciated major government initiatives bringing additional support, including the furlough scheme, the temporary £20 a week addition to Universal Credit, Statutory Sick Pay paid from day one, and the provision of free school meals vouchers in the holidays.
They helped with the financial instability families faced when losing work and earnings over this period and dealing with extra costs when children were at home.
But these measures have been withdrawn just as the cost of living crisis deepens. By comparison, measures to help such as a selective reduction in Council Tax bills, or piecemeal assistance via the Household Support Fund will only very partially compensate for rapidly rising costs.
Families were really worried as they faced the pressure of higher bills and concern about the impact of further increases. With little they could do about it they felt overlooked by the Government who they saw as out of touch with the challenges they face.
The report suggests action is needed to help families dealing with soaring costs and future uncertainty including:
- Increase the adequacy of social security benefits - at the very least uprate benefits in line with inflation – to avoid adding to the long term cut in the value of benefits.
- Easier access to additional support – measures applied automatically in the pandemic were more responsive than ad hoc support that people have to know about and apply for.
- Improve employment security with sufficient wages, rights that fit in with family life, and Statutory Sick Pay from day one.
Katherine Hill, who led the research said: “Our research shows that uncertainty has been an ongoing issue for families, heightened during the pandemic and now rising costs.
“Low-income families are already managing on a tightrope, with nothing to fall back on. They won't have made savings in the pandemic from missing out on expensive holidays or eating out that they couldn't afford in the first place.
“The pandemic showed us that the government can respond with measures to help protect incomes and provide extra support for people caught up in a crisis beyond their control.
“Not only has the Universal Credit uplift been removed, but benefits are further devalued as they aren't being adjusted to reflect real-time inflation, at the same time as families' budgets are being hit by rising prices – so people are being squeezed from all sides.
“The soaring cost of living is likely to be an even greater crisis than the pandemic for many low-income households, and the government must recognise and respond with the same urgency."