“I had no idea of how I was supposed to live and how to provide for my child. I didn’t eat, I had to make a choice between feeding my child and putting money into my gas and electric.
[My baby] had grown out of her clothes and needed new clothes. I remember feeling like a complete failure as a mum because I don’t have enough money. So I’m cutting the feet off her sleepsuits so she’d have a romper.”
These are the words of Keira, a single parent to a one-year-old daughter from Edinburgh who had to survive three months without Universal Credit payments due to a fault in the benefit system.
Hers is one of many stories of the more than 1500 Scottish families living on low incomes, who received an Emergency Early Years grant from Save the Children during the pandemic.
We spoke to 18 families who received a grant to understand just how challenging the last year has been for them.
"An extra £10 a week could ... totally change the world." Shaunie - one of the parents we spoke to - sits with her son Rehaan. Learn more about them, and families like theirs, in our report 'Dropped Into A Cave'.
Isolated, abandoned and unable to ask for help
Parents told us how the pandemic caused or increased financial difficulties: precarious family incomes were not resilient to the shock of sudden job losses or a significant reduction in income.
Those already in insecure employment situations now had to care for their children at home, which put their jobs at risk. Where a crisis occurred, there were waiting times, glitches in benefit payments and some fell through the gaps of eligibility.
At the same time, essential living costs increased: food, gas and electricity costs went up to provide for children now at home; data and devices had to be paid for to keep families connected and children learning.
Keira explains how she felt unable to even ask for help, feeling isolated and abandoned:
"I just kept saying [to my mum], everything’s fine, everything’s fine. Because it’s a shame thing as well, I guess. I felt kind of ashamed that I wasn’t able to provide. I just felt so alone. It literally felt like you were dropped into a cave and it felt like, that’s it.”
While financial difficulties had a huge impact on families, they were not the only worries. Parents shared how the loss of face-to-face support and informal social networks was as significant and had a profound impact. Vital lifelines of formal or informal support for families became patchy or were lost entirely during lockdown, which affected coping abilities that would normally have been available.
The impact on children
However, parents also showed remarkable resilience. Most parents enjoyed spending more time with their children and felt their relationships with their children had been strengthened during lockdown. Some enjoyed feeling more connected with their childrens’ learning at school.
On the other hand, many parents were overwhelmed by the pressures of ‘home schooling’ alongside the other challenges they were facing. “The computers did not work for me. Oh, that was so stressful trying to do things on the computer for the kids for school. I didn’t like it,” reflected a parent of four children.
Parents were concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their children’s development. They observed how their children missed out on play opportunities, social interaction and connection with extended family, friends and the community. “I feel bad as a mother. I’m not happy because I know that he’s not getting the happiness that he deserves as a kid,” one parent explained.
Standing with children and families
As we emerge out of the pandemic, it is critical that we prioritise the needs of families with young children experiencing low income in the recovery. Families with the youngest children are amongst those who have suffered the most and we know they are the most vulnerable to the impact of poverty.
We need to protect family incomes now and ensure a minimum income standard that enables families with children to live a dignified life and provide a good childhood.
We also need to ensure holistic family support is available to all families who need it. This should be tailored and include practical, emotional and financial support.
Families' expertise and experience
Children have missed out on relationships and play. We must provide opportunities to rekindle relationships beyond the family unit and offer varied play experiences that build resilience and wellbeing, as well as social connections. We know that play has a unique role in improving outcomes for children and their learning.
Families need to be part of finding and implementing solutions. They need to be included and involved in the decision making process about how we recover from the pandemic. Their experience and expertise will ensure that the recovery helps every child thrive.
Photo credit: Sandy Young/scottishphotographer.com