New research finds families on low-incomes face constant struggle to get by

News | Posted on Tuesday 22 March 2022

Going without food and heating has become a routine part of daily life for families on low incomes, according to the latest findings from the Covid Realities project.

The report finds that low-income families are going without food and heating.

Researchers say families on low-incomes are facing the fallout from the disruptions triggered by Covid-19, climate change, Brexit and now the war in Ukraine as the price of essential goods and services rise sharply.

Covid Realities was launched in April 2020 to document the experiences of parents and carers living on low incomes during the pandemic.

The project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, was due to end in December 2021, but has now been extended to capture the scale of the emerging cost of living crisis on everyday life on a low-income.

The findings from this additional work, which ran from November 2021 to March 2022, involved online diaries, responses to video elicited questions and online discussion groups. Parents and carers themselves developed recommendations of what needs to change, and why.

Pressing need

Dr Ruth Patrick, who leads the research programme from the University of York’s Social Policy & Social Work department said: "As winter 2021 loomed, we knew that the combination of the £20 cut to Universal Credit and the growing cost of living crisis would make daily life only harder still for families struggling on a low-income.

"Even so, the evidence generated from this research is a damning indictment of the extent and nature of hardship that families on a low-income routinely face.

"Families have nowhere else left to cut, and there is a pressing need for the UK Government to improve the social security system, so it supports families and guarantees them a decent level of income."

Spring statement

In advance of the Spring Statement, parents, and carers on a low-income are calling for urgent reform to social security.

The key findings are:

  • 'There is nothing left to cut back' - people have reached the limits of their budgeting practices and resourcefulness
  • 'Going without' essentials - without food and heating - has become a routine part of daily life for families on a low-income
  • Life on a low income is having a negative impact on mental and physical health
  • There is a need for significant changes to social security to address the problems of inadequate incomes.

Dr Jim Kaufman, lead author of this report, said: "These findings underscore the need for urgent action to ameliorate the hardships faced by people living on the lowest incomes.

"But they also point to more long-standing problems in the way our social security system and labour market are organised. These problems are no less deserving of our attention, and it is vital that our conversations about how to address them include the voices of people with lived experience."


While the measures announced so far by the Chancellor are welcome, families on a low-income describe them as short-term, narrowly targeted at energy costs, and failing to address the root causes of the problem.

Instead, they are calling for permanent, radical changes that directly address the problem of inadequate incomes, including:

  • Increase the value of benefits in line with the rising cost of living (ie more than seven per cent)
  • Double child benefit
  • Increase wages by bringing the minimum wage up to the real living wage
  • Remove VAT from energy bills
  • Reduce energy costs by reforming energy companies creating a fairer system
  • Subsidise bills through a windfall tax on energy company profits
  • Extend the warm homes discount
  • Provide an emergency one-off payment of £200

The Covid Realities project is a partnership with the Universities of York, Birmingham and Child Poverty Action Group and is funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

Further information

Covid Realities is a major research collaboration between the Universities of York and Birmingham, working in partnership with Child Poverty Action Group. The programme is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, as part of their rapid-response to Covid-19.

Since May 2020, the Covid Realities research team has been working in partnership with parents and carers to document the experiences of families living on a low income during the pandemic.

The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods.

The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Ada Lovelace Institute, and the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory.

The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.


Contact us

Department of Social Policy and Social Work
+44 (0)1904 321231
University of York, Church Lane Building, York Science Park Heslington, York, YO10 5ZF

Contact us

Department of Social Policy and Social Work
+44 (0)1904 321231
University of York, Church Lane Building, York Science Park Heslington, York, YO10 5ZF