The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's annual flagship report reveals the issues millions of families face across the UK
Struggling families have been hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, new research has shown.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) said those who had been struggling to make ends meet before March 2020 were more likely to work in precarious jobs or sectors of the economy that had been hardest hit by lockdowns.
The foundation’s flagship annual report reveals before Covid-19, incomes were falling – and falling fastest – for people with the lowest incomes, as the value of benefit payments decreased, meaning millions were financially exposed when the pandemic hit. And these people are the ones most likely to have lost jobs or faced uncertain employment in recent months, the study shows.
The charity has said unless those in power make the right decisions now, there is a risk that families in poverty find it much harder to recover from the third economic shock of a necessary but long third lockdown as the UK looks to rebuild its economy.
Helen Barnard, director of the JRF, said: “It is a damning indictment of our society that those with the least have suffered the most before the pandemic and are now being hit hardest once again by the pandemic. The government must now make the right decisions to avoid another damaging decade.
“It’s unacceptable that certain groups are bearing the brunt of the economic impact of Covid-19, and are now reeling from the latest blow of this third lockdown. We all believe in justice and in looking out for each other, and we support policies that reflect these values. Ministers were right to increase Universal Credit by £20 a week and they must now make it permanent and extend this support to legacy benefits.
“2020 was an extraordinarily difficult year for all of us and has shifted the dial in terms of what support is possible. Learning from this, there are serious injustices we cannot put off tackling any longer. We must not rest until everyone, regardless of their background, is able to achieve a decent life.”
UK Poverty 2020 – 2021 shows the first lockdown in 2020 impacted families in poverty the hardest (as they faced increased living costs due to children being off school, lost work and built up extra debts). Those same families are now facing the latest lockdown in the heart of winter. Keeping children fed, warm and online for the weeks ahead will only increase the pressure on families as we all wait for the vaccine to roll out and the country to open up again.
According to the research, workers on the lowest incomes experienced on average the largest cut in hours at the start of the pandemic almost a year ago, with 81% of people working in retail and accommodation recording a drop in income. More than a third of single parents working in hospitality and over a quarter of those in retail were already living in poverty before their sectors were severely hit by restrictions.
In a reflection of the uneven economic impact caused by the pandemic, the foundation said that four in 10 workers on the minimum wage faced a high risk of losing their job, compared with just 1% of workers earning more than £41,500 a year.
HR consultant Melanie is one of those who has been part of JRF’s UK Poverty Grassroots Action Group. She said: “Since I was made redundant in the financial crash I have been working whenever I can and I set up a new business in 2018, but the work dried up during the first lockdown and we had to close. I have been caring for my 88-year-old father as well as bringing up my son and I haven’t been working since October. The job situation is pretty bleak. I’m at a loss about what to do next. I have tried so many things to better myself. I consider myself quite a strong, educated and confident person, and I know I have so much to offer.
“I know this lockdown is necessary but it’s also another thing to battle through after all the struggles of the last year, and I want the system to work much better for people in my position once we get through this. One thing that has helped a little is the temporary £20-a-week uplift in Universal Credit. That extra £20 gave me a little bit more wiggle room, we’ve relied more on corner shops because they had the stock (in the first lockdown) – they were a lifeline when the supermarkets were running out. But my £50 weekly shop went up to about £80. All the offers and discounts stopped – the £20 didn’t go that far but it did make a difference. I always needed that extra money to get me through.”