On 12th January, with schools closed during England’s third lockdown in less than a year, a photo went viral. It had been taken by a mother going by the name Roadside Mum on Twitter. In it she laid out the contents of the free school meals provisions she had been sent to feed her child at home for 10 days: a loaf of bread, eight single cheese slices, one tin of baked beans, three Frubes, a single tomato, two handfuls of penne pasta, two potatoes, two carrots, three apples, two bananas and two small Soreen packets.
As if they were making a sick joke, Chartwells, the private catering company which sent this assortment of food as a substitute for what Roadside Mum’s child would have been given at school, had called it a ‘hamper’, of the sort you might get in Harrods or Fortnum & Mason. Once again, the state’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic shone a bright light on a social epidemic with which too many people in Britain were already grappling: poverty. In doing so, it revealed just how inadequate the available state support – which is supposed to be a lifeline and a safety net – can be.
During 2020, the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits and state support rose dramatically. By November, 2.7 million people were claiming either Jobseeker’s Allowance or Universal Credit, 1.4 million more than in March, before the virus swept through the country, changing everything. Not all of the human beings behind these statistics are out of work; some are working but in low paid roles or in jobs with short hours, such as part-time care work or zero-hour contracts. Roles, by the way, that young women are more likely to find themselves in.
During 2020, the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits and state support rose dramatically. By November, 2.7 million people were claiming either Jobseeker’s Allowance or Universal Credit, 1.4 million more than in March.
These statistics represent people like 35-year-old single mother of one Samantha from Merseyside. She works three days a week in a consumer contact centre for a national brand while her 2-year-old attends nursery part-time.
“I’ve been claiming Universal Credit since my daughter was born to help with childcare costs,” she says. “I was getting around £200 a month until I split with my former partner. It’s now around £800 a month but if the government takes away the additional funding [also known as the weekly £20 uplift] that they brought in during the pandemic as planned in April, it will go down.”
Samantha’s Universal Credit, combined with her salary, covers her outgoings – rent and bills – but leaves no spare cash for anything else. “I’ve had to rely on credit cards and loans to get by,” she explains. “I can only see this getting worse for me. I’m just feeling so unmotivated right now. It feels like I’m stuck in a cycle that’s never going to get any better.”
Studies and reports have long shown us the damage that poverty does to lives; the havoc it wreaks on the opportunities, experiences and health of those who are forced to live in it. We already knew that poverty increases the risk of mental health problems. We already knew that people living in our poorest communities are more likely to get sick and die younger. And yet it took a global pandemic and the ensuing public health crisis for society at large to realise how bad things were, to see the photos of free school meals food that nobody could live off and remain healthy, and become outraged.
The finances of young women with children have been hit particularly hard during this crisis. It is doubly unjust that people like Samantha, who were already trapped in relative poverty before this pandemic, have suffered the most from the financial damage it has caused. This week the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published the 2020/2021 edition of its yearly report on poverty across the United Kingdom. It found that the last decade of deprivation, which includes various government policies of cutting welfare under the auspices of austerity, combined with the pandemic, has meant that those who had the least have been hit the hardest because government support is often simply not sufficient to ‘keep them afloat’. Similarly, the Resolution Foundation has warned that living costs of food, entertaining and home-schooling children have risen for low-income families during the pandemic.
Twenty-three-year-old Sophie from Portsmouth knows how much this is needed. She has a 4-year-old son and prior to the pandemic had never accessed state benefits. “In February/March last year my work dried up overnight,” she explains. “I was a freelance wedding planner, working for hotels and event spaces who outsourced their events. I had 35 clients booked in for the summer of 2020; every single one of them cancelled or rearranged. By April, my money had run out and I had to look for other work but we were in the first lockdown.”
Luckily, a vacuum cleaner company approached Sophie around this time and she joined their sales team. She works 12 hours a week for them for two reasons: firstly because it allows her to work around her son’s nursery days but secondly because if she works any longer, her Universal Credit entitlement will go down and she won’t be able to afford her basic costs.
“I am currently receiving £960 a month in Universal Credit,” she explains. “I get £160 every two weeks from my part-time job so, every month, I have around £1,340 coming in. If I make more money, my benefits will go down so I actually can’t afford to work more, which is ridiculous.”
I’m frustrated and it feels like there’s no end in sight. I am in full survival mode all the time and I know my son is impacted by this.
Sophie’s rented two-bedroom home is £850 a month and, because of the way housing benefit is calculated through what’s known as the Local Housing Allowance, the most she can claim towards that in her area is £680. In many parts of the country, state support doesn’t cover people’s rents. “I have to cover the extra myself,” Sophie says. “This leaves me with £480 for me and my son after rent and that’s before council tax, car insurance, pet insurance (we have two lovely cats), utility bills and our food bill.”
The inadequacy of the benefits system has shocked Sophie. “I have cut back on everything I can, economised on everything. The way we live now, because my work disappeared and we need state support, compared to how we lived before is like night and day. The communication with Universal Credit is seriously lacking, I’m frustrated and it feels like there’s no end in sight. I am in full survival mode all the time and I know my son is impacted by this.”
The vaccine is slowly being rolled out in Britain and World Health Organization scientists are travelling to Wuhan in China to try to find out where the novel coronavirus actually came from. As things stand, we don’t yet know the exact cause of COVID-19, let alone have a cure for the chaos it continues to bring. Unlike the pandemic, though, we do know what causes the social epidemic of poverty and we do know how to cure it: a functioning welfare state which provides people with support that they can not only survive but thrive on.
These experiences of poverty existed before the pandemic. People were struggling to make ends meet long before coronavirus and warning that the status quo was unsustainable but now their calls for us to do better are impossible to ignore. At a minimum, both the Resolution Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation are calling on the government to make the temporary £20 a week increase to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit permanent as a matter of urgency. Yet if we are now waking up to poverty in Britain today and seeing it in real terms on social media, we must fight for more. It looks like something a hell of a lot more substantial than two carrots and three apples. It looks like truly affordable housing and universal access to free broadband for everyone. Young women with children simply won’t be able to survive without this. We needed all of this before but now that many of us are working or learning from home, they’re basic requirements. Coronavirus has exacerbated poverty in Britain and exposed the fact that the support in place for those facing hardship just isn’t good enough.
Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?