Social Support Networks: A New Safety Net in the Covid-19 Crisis?

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society.  Click hereto access the article.

The covid-19 pandemic has had traumatic impacts on many people’s lives, whether through illness, bereavement, loss of earnings, or the ongoing pressure of lockdown. In such times, support from friends and family can be crucial, particularly for those with low incomes and limited resources. Our recent qualitative longitudinal research with low income families found that such support provides an important safety net for those facing financial uncertainty but is also subject to change. Today, as the state seeks to mend its own safety net after years of deterioration, the relationship between state support and social networks takes on new relevance.

Our research provides an insight into how families on low incomes experienced ongoing uncertainty over a two-year period, and the support they received to help. Their vulnerability to low and fluctuating income arose from insecure employment, having to balance work with childcare and changes in health and relationships. Support from the state could sometimes exacerbate uncertainty through difficulties with benefit claims, delays and changes to entitlements. In such circumstances we found that relatives and friends both helped families on an ongoing basis to supplement low income, and provided a backstop to keep them afloat during particular times of need.

With a quarter of UK households losing all or a substantial part of their earned income in the first three weeks of lockdown, the government has stepped in on a scale unimaginable during the previous decade of austerity. In the early months, its Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme covered 80% of the wages of over 8 million furloughed employees (up to £2500 a month), while a further scheme provided grants to (some) self-employed workers. Housing costs were supported through mortgage holidays and an increase in the Local Housing Allowance rate for private tenants. The safety net was raised temporarily by £20 a week for those on Universal Credit (but not those still on ‘legacy’ out-of-work benefits), with over two million households making new UC declarations from the beginning of March to mid May.

This additional state provision is set against severe erosion of working-age benefits in recent years. For example, out of work benefits for a lone parent with two children provided 68% of the minimum income required according to our Minimum Income Standard in 2010, falling to 58% by 2019 – the 2020 boost restored less than half of this cut (bringing it to 62%). While some new UC claimants have savings or earnings, they may also be paying high private rents or a mortgage, and those with no fall back will depend on UC as their financial safety net – with many concerned about covering bills and housing costs. Evidence shows that workers in low-paid and unstable jobs are more likely to work in sectors worst hit by the shutdown, leading to lost jobs and reduced pay where budgets may already be stretched. Households with dependent children currently face increased childcare demands, and those with disabilities or health conditions may need to shield bringing additional challenges to work.

Families in these situations have little to fall back on (most have little or no savings), with an 89% rise in emergency food parcels in April 2020 compared to April 2019 despite additional state provision.

It is clear from our study that in times of difficulty families on low incomes often turn to informal support networks. The research highlighted how financial, practical and emotional support from family and friends could be crucial for keeping their heads above water and avoiding or coping with a crisis. Support ranged from gifts or loans to buying things for the children, help with finding work, providing childcare and offering moral support in difficult times.

However, the availability of this support was not a constant over time, and we observed crucial changes in relationships as peoples’ financial and personal situations altered. For example, where grandparents who helped with childcare had less time due to changing work or caring responsibilities, and where deteriorating health shifted the direction of support as those providing help needed support themselves.

The pandemic could further affect the availability and dynamic of this much relied-on support for some families in several ways.

First, those who might have been able to help families in hard times may themselves be more stretched if experiencing loss of work and income. When such a severe crisis hits whole swathes of the population simultaneously, mutual help in times of need becomes harder to sustain.

Secondly, in our study it was often parents or grandparents who provided significant practical help to families. With social distancing and many older people shielding, the nature of networks and exchanges will have changed where grandparents can’t cover childcare and people in different households are unable to offer practical help in the same way (share a meal, lift or provide care).

Thirdly, the crucial emotional support from friends and family observed in our study might also be affected. Our interviewees were sometimes reluctant to trouble others who face difficulties of their own, which is more likely with the pervasive impact of the pandemic. On the other hand, participants really valued sharing experiences and knowledge, particularly with friends also trying to manage on constrained budgets. Such mutual support will now be crucial for many families, even done remotely. Indeed, other forms of support are emerging during the crisis – from community and neighbourhood networks to street WhatsApp groups – providing shared practical, material and moral support that can build neighbourly connection.

The government’s current improvement of the ‘safety net’ tacitly recognises that people can suddenly find themselves in difficulty and that current provision is not enough for families to get by. They should not have to fall back on family and friends to do so, particularly when people’s ability to provide such support may be compromised. Additional public support will not necessarily remove the need for informal support networks, but moves towards redressing the balance. The impact of Covid-19 on a stronger public safety net and implications for existing and emerging social support networks will require careful research. In looking beyond crisis management, the question is whether the so far temporary steps to reverse austerity could evolve into longer term policy to better support those in need.


About the author

Katherine Hill is Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Research in Social Policy, Loughborough University

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