Disadvantaged children and young people: how COVID has doubled down

In episode 4 of the Generation Pandemic podcast we explore how the COVID-19 pandemic doubled down on disadvantaged familes and children. Joining host, Catherine McDonald, are Dr Jim Kaufman from the COVID Realities project, Sarah Edmonds from the Irish Youth Foundation and Emma, a mum of three whose family has been hit hard by the pandemic. Emma gives a first-hand account of her family’s experience and the panel discuss both the enormity and complexity of the pandemic’s legacy.



Catherine McDonald  0:05 

Hello, and welcome to Generation Pandemic, a podcast from the Interdisciplinary Child Wellbeing Network, looking at the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on children in the UK and Ireland. I’m Catherine MacDonald and today we’re focusing on how the pandemic has doubled down on children and young people from disadvantaged and low income families. In a moment we’ll be hearing from Dr. Jim Kaufman, from the Covid Realities project, and Sarah Edmonds from the Irish Youth Foundation. But first we’re going to hear from Emma, a mum of three, as she explains the point at which the pandemic began to put a strain on her family.

Emma  0:43 

It started to affect us just a few months in my husband was furloughed on 80%. I wasn’t working at that stage because my middle child had health issues. So I had to give up work a few months before the pandemic in order to look after her. It just it gradually got worse and hit an all time low, mid-summer, last year. And it’s just generally got worse from there.

Catherine McDonald  1:12 

And what is it that’s got worse? Is it mainly financial income?

Emma  1:15 

Yeah, completely. I mean, inflation obviously hasn’t helped. And we was already playing catch up. And when you’re on a downward spiral, financially, it is so hard to get on top of that. You’re constantly chasing your tail. And it is generally just got worse and worse and worse, no matter how hard we’re trying to improve our situation.

Catherine McDonald  1:39 

And what has happened with your husband’s work now has the furlough, so obviously the furlough period has ended has he now gone back?

Emma  1:39 

He’s now gone back on reduced hours and reduced income. He was working full-time, six days a week. But he’s now working full-time, five days a week. He’s lost seven hours a week, but he was furloughed for a total of 10 months. And the application for universal credit took a while. So that automatically put us on a setback. It has been hard without what we had before. I mean, it’s crazy to say that two years on, we’re now doing more to improve our situation, but we’re worse off than where we was back, then.

Catherine McDonald  2:26 

That’s a really interesting point, actually, isn’t it that even though you know, we are all back at work, and the children are back at school and preschool and nursery, so to that extent life is back to normal, but you are still having to pedal faster than you were just to be in the same position as you were?

Emma  2:43 

Yeah, exactly. You just you constantly feel like you’re drowning. I looked at going to work full-time. So I figured that would be my only option. And in order to do that, and put my two youngest in childcare, it was gonna cost over £900 a month. And there was no way that it would be beneficial to be working full-time, and to be paying out that at the same time, because then you’ve got travel costs on top of that, and it didn’t matter what we did, you felt like there was no way out of it. And there still isn’t, I mean, things are starting to look a bit brighter. Now I’ve got the warmer weather, but it is just so hard, and it does consume you completely. It’s had a massive impact on my mental health and my oldest child as well. And is this just a sad the last few years have been absolutely horrendous.

Catherine McDonald  3:40 

And do you mind me asking how that’s impacted on your mental health and that of your child?

Emma  3:46 

No, I mean, when, when we was in the midst of lockdown, and I was trying to homeschool my son, the girls were only two and three at the time. And it was just so hard and my son is a very sociable person. So it impacted his mental health greatly. And he even we even went for a patch where he turned around and said, Mom don’t want to be here anymore. It breaks your heart but it’s just what. It’s so hard to get out of that situation. We got him the help he needed. And now everything has opened up again. He’s fine, but it made me feel like such a failure as a parent. I couldn’t do a weekly food shop like I used to do so the kids went from being able to eat almost what they wanted when they wanted to basically having rations. And everyone knows when when you’ve got kids at home and they’re bored all they want to do is eat and it was it was such hard work and it took a massive toll on my mental health because financially we just couldn’t cope. I couldn’t give the kids what they wanted, what they needed. And if it hadn’t been for the children, I can honestly say I wouldn’t be here now.

Catherine McDonald  5:10 

Emma, that’s just you know, that’s, that’s just gonna stop everyone in their tracks. That’s just so awful to hear. But um, you know, obviously, we’ll all be pleased to hear that, as you said earlier, things are starting to look a bit brighter for you. So what was it about your sort of pre-pandemic situation would you say that sort of laid the ground really, for you and your family to experience the pandemic in the way you did?

Emma  5:36 

Well, my daughter’s health issues started in the November before the pandemic, and we nearly lost her. And I had to give up work to look after her. It’s just it’s so it’s so sad in this day and age that a man who’s working full-time still can’t provide what he needs for his family. Do you know if you went back, God knows how many years that used to be the thing moms used to stay at home, look after the children, the man bringing the money, but it just doesn’t work that way now.

Catherine McDonald  5:36 

Exactly, and as you say, for families who want to live that way. And like you said, you knew because of your daughter’s health issues that you wanted to be at home, that’s where you felt you needed to be. But doing that put you in an awful situation.

Emma  6:26 

Yeah, exactly. And it’s, it’s frustrating. The fact of the matter is, I had to put my child’s health first and look after her in order for her to make it through the pandemic. And by doing that, we went through, well we are still going through the financial repercussions, and it shouldn’t be that way.

Catherine McDonald  6:49 

So what would you say to policymakers listening to this?

Emma  6:53 

Policymakers? Well, I think at the end of the day, as far as the decisions they’re making at the moment, they’re not putting the younger generation first, which is what we need to do, because ultimately, they’re the ones that are going to suffer in the future. They’re the ones that are going to have to live with it long term, and they are our country’s future. So there should be more in the way of supporting the younger generations and all the children going through child poverty that aren’t getting that fair start. There should be something to support them.

Catherine McDonald  7:27 

And how are your children now in themselves? How are they doing?

Emma  7:30 

My daughter has come out the other side of her illness, my son’s mental health has improved. I think they’re just they’re much happier now. Because they get to socialise with other children live a pretty normal life. Yes, it’s not as I’d like it to be at home. I’m skipping meals to make sure the kids are fed. And my son’s now noticed, but it’s a case of swings and roundabouts I suppose. It’s positive that they’re now being able to social and get the education that they need. And they’re improving in that sense. So we’re at a point where we need to be grateful as there are worse things.

Catherine McDonald  8:06 

But you are skipping meals?

Emma  8:08 

Yeah, yeah, I don’t, I don’t have breakfast or dinner. I will just have something small throughout the day. I mean, it was a few weeks ago, my son said to me, said, he asked for some cereal, and he picked up two bowls. I said, you don’t need two bowls of cereal. You have one bowl breakfast, and he was like. No, I’m doing you some cereal mum. But I haven’t seen you eat in days, I will need to make sure you eaten before I go to school. And that broke my heart because he’s actually noticed that and he’s trying to make sure that I’m eating but I’ve got to make the food last as long as possible. And we are using food banks.

Catherine McDonald  8:42 

And obviously it’s we’re seeing as you mentioned earlier, inflation and everything just seems to be getting more and more expensive. And at the moment we’re heading for summer. How do you feel about the year ahead, you know, including a winter in that where you’re going to need heating.

Emma  8:58 

I’m absolutely dreading next winter. I mean, last winter was hard enough because we had the universal credit uplift got taken away. Our energy price went up the same month, we had Christmas around the corner. That was hard enough, but this winter, I’m absolutely dreading because the prices are meant to go back up again in October. We can’t even cope with the prices that we’re having to pay now. And it’s the warmer weather imagine I can’t even begin to imagine how much next winter is gonna affect us. I really can’t.

Catherine McDonald  9:32 

Jim, so obviously Emma takes part in the Covid Realities project. Are you hearing similar experiences to Emma a lot?

Jim Kaufman  9:41 

Obviously Emma’s experience, and everyone’s on the project is unique, but there are some common themes that come up. So Emma’s talked about the inadequacy of pay, particularly in relation to rising costs. So not having enough income and not really having enough income before the pandemic either. So just getting by. And then the pandemic comes along as a shock, other things that have impacted on COVID realities, participants, the difficulties of homeschooling, but also the price of care, I think comes up for lots of people. So the costs that are imposed by any choice to care whether that be as a parent for a child or other kind of family members that those choices around caring impose costs on people. And in these sorts of situations, people often turn to the benefit system, which is ostensibly there to, to kind of support people in moments of crises, or when situations mean that they have to step away from the labour market for whatever reason. But what we see in lots of cases is that the benefit system doesn’t really plug that gap and engaging with it even puts people on the back foot. So yeah, I think those those themes that Emma’s mentioned do come up for lots of people.

Catherine McDonald  11:06 

And Sarah, again, your reaction to Emma’s experience, how does that align with what the Irish Youth Foundation has seen and heard as people come out of the pandemic?

Sarah Edmonds  11:15 

I mean, it’s so impactful, listening to you speak Emma I am listening, I suppose, with my Irish Youth Foundation lens. And something that’s slightly different, I suppose to what we have witnessed is that Emma has clearly created a lovely home for her family, her kids are growing up in a very loving environment. And of course, there has been huge challenges for you, Emma over the last number of years with COVID. But listening to you what I’m hearing is a mom who’s incredibly focused on her children’s wellbeing and two parents and a couple who are doing their best in extremely challenging circumstances to meet their children’s needs. What we have witnessed, unfortunately, is a lot of children coming from homes where there isn’t that parental support, and that safe family structure and that family unit. I mean, what we have seen is before the kind of onslaught of COVID, the children, young people that we were working with, were already really struggling to secure a safe foothold in society, and poverty and exclusion, had really placed them at the furthest point from meaningful participation in education, from wellbeing in terms of their mental and their physical health. And I suppose really just distancing them from being able to make the most positive life choices. So then for those children that were already living with that experience, what COVID meant was that all of a sudden, their most trusted support and their most critical support systems and services, outside of school, local youth project or after school clubs, these were suddenly taken away from them, they were shut down overnight. And what we saw was so many children and young people, I suppose suddenly experiencing a deeper like an additional trauma in their lives in that maybe homes that weren’t safe spaces, were the only spaces where they could be. Adults, such as their youth worker, or their support worker, or teacher, even in so many cases, and who were the trusted people in their lives were no longer available to them. So they were left incredibly isolated, and very often in quite unsafe circumstances. In the second lockdown that we experienced over here, those youth services were available. But for youth workers, what we heard from them was that they had to engage them online and young people were so disengaged from online work that, that the youth workers lost a lot of relationships. And these were relationships that had been established over years with children and young people who were living in poverty and experiencing disadvantage or living with chaos or trauma in their lives. So it created, I suppose, a massive crisis really. And, you know, Emma spoke there about how two years on she and her husband are doing more to improve their situation, but they’re worse off than they were. And this really aligns to what I’ve heard from a lot of youth workers. One youth worker described it to me very powerfully back in 2020. She said, what we’re experiencing now is the building of a tidal wave, the school closures, the lock downs, the lack of access to important services, all of this is building building. And everybody thinks because this was just as we were coming into the reopening after a third lockdown. She said everybody thinks that returning to school and getting kids back into services where everything’s going to be fine, but she said we’re going to see the impact of this for years to come. We’re going to be dealing with a mental health fall out that as the generation we’ve never witnessed, we are going to be dealing with a crisis in terms of skills and employability opportunities, and we are going to be dealing with early school leaving and lack of education as a direct result of COVID-19 and the lockdowns. She said, it’s going to be a tidal wave that’s going to crash. And the impact will be seen for years. We think I think quite often that, you know, we’ve closed the door and it almost back to not wearing masks. And we’re back to socialising as we were able to pre-COVID. But the long-term effects and the long-term impacts are going to be with us, I think, for a very long time to come.

Catherine McDonald  15:24 

Absolutely. And hearing you say that it’s overwhelming, you know, to picture it as a tidal wave. What do we do? What can we do?

Sarah Edmonds  15:33 

Yeah, I know, it’s hard, isn’t it? It’s hard to know what we can do. I mean, to direct policymakers, I would say that we urgently need to fund more evidence based mental health intervention support programmes. I mean, Emma spoke about her son’s mental health being impacted and her own mental health being impacted. And the challenge with mental health difficulties is that mental health doesn’t discriminate, but we don’t have enough access to services, Emma’s talking about skipping meals to make sure her children are fed. How can she prioritise counselling when that’s her her most basic and urgent needs? Certainly in Ireland, we’re not providing enough access and enough support to mental health interventions at an affordable rate for people I believe, we also just need to invest in safe spaces. This came out of our research the foundation did a piece of research last year. We surveyed just over 300 youth workers, they represented 35,000 children, young people around Ireland, and safe spaces was a huge thing that came out of the research. We need to invest in safe spaces where youth workers can rebuild relationships, and directly engage children and young people. Children and young people need the opportunity to socialise again, to engage in activities, and to build their self confidence to have a chance to build their resilience, in order for them to go forward out of this devastating pandemic with the best possible shot at well being in the future.

Catherine McDonald  16:59 

And Jim, would you echo that?  Have you got anything to add to that in terms of, as I say, this overwhelming feeling of we need to do something? What do we do?

Jim Kaufman  17:08 

I’ve actually got a question for Sarah. So Sarah spoke about the impact of the pandemic being like a tidal wave, and something that’s built in and that won’t be fully experienced, or that will take a number of years to unfold. But she also spoke about very clearly about, like the sense of urgency in the sector in the area that that she works in, in youth services that something needs to be done now. That definitely resonates with Covid Realities. But I wondered, does she perceive an awareness amongst policymakers of that urgency? Does she think that there’s a kind of, a sort of readiness amongst policymakers to begin to address things on the scale that she says is needed?

Sarah Edmonds  17:54 

I, I don’t to be quite truthful. I know from what we have learned from the youth workers, who are the people on the ground that the people doing the direct work with these families and these children and young people is that there isn’t that sense of urgency and that there isn’t that sense of immediate response. I think that our, and again it’s different in Ireland to the UK, but I think that our mental health system over here at the moment, and the structures that we have in place would really highlight that that sense of urgency is not there that it’s not being prioritised. We did a survey in May 2020. It was young people only. So between the ages of 15 and 24. That responded – 59% of the young people that responded reported being worried about their mental health. That was in May 2020. In July 2020, only 15% of young people surveyed through a different national mental health survey reported being engaged with a mental health support service, there’s a huge deficit there. And then we saw that at the end of August 2021. We had 2,384 children on a waiting list for their first appointment with our child and adolescent mental health service. So I don’t think the priority is being placed where it needs to be placed right now. Youth services that we engage with reported no increase in their funding, post COVID-19. They have all stated that there is actually a deficit in funding at the moment. And it’s putting huge strain on resources to enable them to get out into communities and to engage with families and engage with young people and start to thread together solutions and it’s stopping them from prioritising work that needs to be done. And that’s down to resources. It’s down to a lack of staffing and a lack of funding.

Catherine McDonald  19:54 

Jim, is that what you expected Sarah to say?

Jim Kaufman  19:58 

Yeah, that kind of reflects the situation in the UK as well, and particularly around, you know, addressing the kind of problems that have been revealed in terms of people’s incomes and the cost of living crisis. That’s that’s kind of emerged out of the back of the pandemic. So yeah, I mean, I think there was perhaps a bit of hope that in the spring statement, more might have been done to address the disparity between incomes and and outgoings that many people are facing. But unfortunately, that’s not been the case. And yeah, I don’t see a real sort of urgency to address the damages that have been done during the pandemic. And unfortunately, what we seem to be seeing is a kind of a wish, really to kind of return to normal when things really still aren’t normal at all. So yeah, unfortunately, I kind of recognise what Sarah is saying.

Sarah Edmonds  21:00 

Can I jump in there, Jim, because just when you say, a wish to return to normal, I totally agree with you. But quite often, what I’m experiencing is that’s a privilege piece. If you’re from a household where you’re earning an average or above average income, you have the privilege to move forward, and maybe not address the challenges the long term impact of COVID-19 in a very different way to families who are earning lower incomes. And I think it’s really important that we acknowledge that, but I think there is an absence, certainly in the Irish government, of representation of those families, within the policy making system and the policy makers themselves. And I think that’s a huge challenge, then that needs to be acknowledged and address.

Jim Kaufman  21:49 

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. In the workshop that we attended, you said that during the pandemic, we may have all been in the same storm, but we weren’t all in the same boat. And I think, you know, that struck a chord with with lots of people in the workshop. And I think it applies now, coming out of the pandemic. And what you said really reminded me of this quote from one of our participants, so one of their diary entries, this is is Howie, and she describes reading the news one morning about the fact that some families have been able to save during the pandemic that their outgoings had gone down. So they put money aside, and there was lots of news coverage around this, you know, talking about what people are going to do with the extra money that they’ve got. And that happened in the same week, that there was a scandal in the UK, around the provision of free school meal replacements were certain private contractors were providing about five pounds worth of food, but we’re being paid 30 pounds per head for this service. So Howie woke up, she read the news, and she wrote, I have the red mist this morning, discovering that some people have been able to save during this pandemic was a blow and a shock this week. But I’m totally floored by the fact that some companies have been given families only about five pound worth of food, when they’re allocated 30 pounds, meaning like we all know deep down that some companies have actually made a choice to profit from those struggling with poverty, it is utterly immoral. The idea that we’re all in the same storm, but with different boats just blew up for me this morning. We all know we don’t have the same boats. But actually some people from companies are not even in a storm at all. They are sunning it on a beach somewhere while we work out how to ride the coming tsunami with a rubber ring. And I think, you know, it reflects a kind of perception amongst lots of people that we’re working with on this project, that either then, you know, their needs aren’t kind of recognised, they’re not really seen. The realities of their situation aren’t aren’t even perceived by by some people. Or worse, perhaps they are perceived, but they’re perceived as opportunities, you know, more cynically, as kind of opportunities as Howie sees fit for kind of profit making. So I think what you know what you say about representation and about needing to have better representation and more inclusion of lived experience, that policy can better reflect the needs that people actually have really resonates with, with lots of the things that we’re finding on our project.

Sarah Edmonds  24:36 

That’s a really powerful quote that you just shared there, Jim, from Howie. And I think something that, you know, it’s just important to note there and I think we know it, but it’s not being said enough is that families who are experiencing lower incomes will naturally have less time and fewer resources than to invest into homework, health or extracurricular activities for their children. And chronic financial stress can quite often cause parents to have lower quality interactions with their children. It is just a direct consequence of financial struggle. And when that is not being acknowledged, and the impact of it is not being recognised and addressed, we are only going to cause further trauma for our children and young people. And as Emma said earlier, we need to be investing in these children and young people, we need to be putting our younger generation first. And in choosing to ignore these impacts, we are doing a huge disservice to a generation of young people. And it is very frustrating to be witnessing these consequences in these impacts and feel that there is not everything being done to support people who are in these situations.

Catherine McDonald  25:51 

Emma, can I ask you, what do you think about what you’ve heard from Sarah and Jim?

Emma  25:56 

There’s definitely people sunning themselves. And unfortunately, there is so many families that have are gonna be listening to this and thinking that, yeah, that’s me and the rubber ring. And it’s something needs to change. I think there’s a hell of a lot of greed about now. And it’s time that a lot of people put their own gains aside and thought about the future. There’s a lot of people now who are so wrapped up in their own wealth and their own wellbeing that a lot of people don’t want to face up to what’s going on. And it’s a case of ignorance is bliss. And it needs to be brought forward in order to make a change, until it’s the forefront of policymakers minds and people that can actually make a huge difference – we’re going to be on the same road. And it’s only going to get worse.

Catherine McDonald  26:54 

And I know it’s a hugely complex picture. But Emma, can you quantify certain things you would like to see done?

Emma  27:03 

It used to be a case of I knew exactly what needed to change in the beginning. But I think now it’s become it’s like a plate of spaghetti and trying to straighten it all out. It’s, there’s just so many different angles. And it’s like any structure, sometimes the smallest thing to change can then impact the rest. And there is many, many things that could be changed. But we need to work out which one is going to make the biggest impact because there is a lot of urgency around it. I’m at a point now where I don’t know anymore. I really don’t. I’ve thought about it daily from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep, what needs to change, what will make our lives better. But I think it’s such a sorry state of affairs at the moment. I just, I wouldn’t even know where to start.

Catherine McDonald  27:52 

Sarah, what what’s your reaction to that? In your work? Do you feel the same?

Sarah Edmonds  27:58 

We proposed solutions to our research under three key themes of education, mental health and skills and employability. And because those were the three areas for children, young people, where there was the greatest need, when we investigated it. Emma’s point of what she’s saying about I just don’t know, I’ve thought about it day and night, I think it’s so many different levels, you know, we have the micro level of the very basic targeted support for, you know, food, and I guess after school clubs where children can go so that there isn’t like a cost. If Emma wanted to go back out to work that she’s not paying outrageous fees at nursery. But it’s there’s such an I suppose a scale to the level of solution, that we almost have to start, I think at a very local community level. And that’s what seems to be where there’s the most powerful impact that I’ve witnessed on individuals. If we all take responsibility for being an active member of our community, just where I am, and where I am based, and what I can do within my community, and maybe it’s an hour a week of visiting somebody who’s maybe on their own. Or maybe it’s volunteering at a homework club to help kids who don’t have parents at home to help them with homework. I think we need to actually peel back a lot of layers here in order to start at a very core fundamental level and grow out. However, in saying that I’m very cautious to also acknowledge that it is not the responsibility of individuals to do work that should be done at a governmental and national level. We are really letting down a generation of families and young people at the moment and more needs to be done to tackle that crisis.

Catherine McDonald  29:49 

Jim, do you feel the same?

Jim Kaufman  29:51 

Yeah, we’re circling around something that’s it’s very tricky, isn’t it? Because it’s clear that things weren’t okay going into the pandemic, the social and economic structures of our society is becoming increasingly unequal. There were problems that pre-existed the pandemic pre-existing conditions, if you like, that made people more vulnerable to the pandemic, and its impact living on a low income, or being a carer or caregiver in some way. And those kind of pre-existing conditions that make things much more difficult for some people are not really things that are amenable to small tweaks. Having said that, I think there are some small things that could be done that could make really important changes to people’s lives in the short term. And in particular things that the state could do, like in the UK, restoring the £20 uplift to universal credit, and also making it more universal. So extending it to legacy benefit claimants. We could do something to address the lack of income that people have. So this is a key part of the problem, incomes are too low, and they’re too unequal. So it would be quite a simple thing to raise benefits. And there’s a campaign at the moment in the UK to raise benefits by at least 7 or 8%. So the actual amount of inflation, and there could also be sort of action to sort of strengthen or to improve incomes in the workplace. Restoring some ability of trade unions to bargain for their workers and increasing their kind of strength and leverage would be another way to kind of address some of the problems that have been revealed by the pandemic. And then finally, making sure that we value care, and that we value the care that people give one another, the care that keeps society going, which is too often neglected, and has been particularly neglected by the Social Security system in the UK, over the last two or even three decades, where it’s become increasingly about kind of policing the boundaries of the labour market and making sure that people are oriented toward work and all the rest of it. So that has tended to devalue care and make caring, kind of more costly for people. So I think we could do more to sort of value care. And one simple way of doing that would be to increase child benefit, and to make it universal again, so these are small things, but they would definitely make a difference.

Catherine McDonald  32:37 

And I think what it also, what it also demonstrates is the importance of the work that you know the Irish Youth Foundation and projects like COVID Realities, the importance of the work that they’re doing to highlight the experiences of people during the pandemic and as we come out of it. And, and Emma, I want to thank-you for sharing your experience with us because it’s it’s very much a story that needs to be told. It’s clearly, as we’ve heard very much a story that’s going to resonate with many people listening. So I’d like to give you the final word really, what would you like to say to sort of round off the discussion today?

Emma  33:13 

I think that if you see anyone who might be struggling, even if it’s just something little in a supermarket, just reach out and see if they’re okay, because that goes a long way to making someone feel less alone. Even people you’re close with you can guarantee that beneath the surface, you have no idea what they’re going, and they just may meet a friend right now.

Catherine McDonald  33:39 

My thanks to Dr. Jim Kaufman, Sarah Edmonds, and to Emma for sharing her story. You can find out more about the work of the Interdisciplinary Child Wellbeing Network via their website and Twitter @ICWBN. The work of the network is funded by the UK Research and Innovation Economic and Social Research Council and the Irish Research Council under the ESRC-IRC UK Ireland networking grants. This was a Research Podcast production. Thank-you for listening and remember to subscribe to receive all future episodes. 

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