More than a third of the UK’s poorest families have seen their already meagre incomes squeezed during the pandemic because they have had to spend more on food, gas and electricity, and home schooling, a study has revealed.
The Resolution Foundation thinktank found that while UK household spending broadly dropped and financial savings increased during the Covid crisis, this was not the case for many low-income families, who saw basic living costs surge.
The government had failed to provide effective support for the poorest families, it said, and with the third lockdown expected to last months, it urged ministers to retain the £20 pandemic top-up to universal credit beyond April, as well as boost other benefits for the low-paid.
“The study shines an unforgiving light on the absence of targeted, adequate support for families on a low income, who today face the combined insecurity of Covid-19 and increased financial pressure,” said the study.
This added pressure came after years of weak growth in living standards for the poorest households, in turn leading to a general worsening of mental health, it added. It said: “Financial worries have been added to the general stress and anxiety of the pandemic for many families with children.”
While higher-income groups were able to save money they would ordinarily have spent on commuting, eating out or holidays – and often spent this windfall on luxuries – those in the lowest income cohort often struggled to make ends meet, the study found.
One woman interviewed for the research contrasted how rising food costs had eaten up “every penny of her savings”, while her better-off nephew “has been able to get his garden done with artificial grass and bought a hot tub with what he has saved”.
One woman with children, living on on universal credit, told researchers: “The assumption is that spending has gone down. But that’s coming from the perspective of people who have disposable income … If you had no outgoings on luxuries like coffee shops, takeaway, clothes shopping, pubs, eating out etc, then nothing has been saved.”
She added: “Our only saving has been £2.50 a week we spent on playgroup, and on petrol as we drive out to places less. On a whole we have seen our spending increase. Our electricity and gas bills have gone up for a start, as we’re at home more. We have spent a lot more on food, especially during the first lockdown when there were shortages and we had to buy expensive brands.”
Many poorer families found the extra costs of feeding and entertaining children at home pushed up spending when schools closed, as did the need to equip school-age sons and daughters with laptops and broadband access for online learning.
Normal coping strategies employed by poorer families – visiting friends and families for occasional meals, or using the library for free internet access, and charity shops for cheap clothes – became harder as a result of household mixing restrictions and the closure of libraries and non-essential retail.
The study incorporates research by the Nuffield Foundation-funded Covid Realities project, which has tracked the experiences of low-income families and carers over the course of the pandemic as well as surveys of 6,000 UK adults in May and September.
Dr Ruth Patrick, a lecturer in social policy at the University of York, who leads the Covid Realities research programme said: “While the need for the lockdown is clear, there is an equally urgent need to address the additional financial pressures that families on a low-income face through greater income support to families with dependent children.”