COVID-19 is adding more stress and insecurity for people in poverty

The pandemic has heightened and exposed long-term issues for people in poverty, as Kristian tells Paul Brook in this third story from members of JRF’s UK Poverty Grassroots Action Group.

For this year's UK Poverty report, a group of people from around the UK have given us expert insight and guidance based on their experiences of poverty and the impact it has on them and their communities.

Kristian, a member of the group, is a youth and community worker. He lives with his partner, Jennifer, and their four children in Wrexham, North Wales. He has experienced poverty and homelessness himself, and sees these issues and many others every day in his work.

It was poverty that led Kristian to his job, which he’s been doing for 16 years.

“I was one of those people that I'm trying to help,” he says. “A few years back, my partner was pregnant, we were homeless, and we had to get support from the local authority.”

After moving into a house in Wrexham, Kristian started a ‘Reaching Wider’ access course. “I was unemployed, and I did the course,” he says, “and then I managed to get a part-time job as a youth worker in the local youth club for a few hours. That eventually led me to study for a Youth and Community degree, and I soon realised that I wanted to give back my efforts in the same way people had given their efforts to help me come through my issues, especially around the suicide of my father at 18 and the life-limiting syndrome my daughter April was born with in 2012.”

Kristian’s role for the past two years has been helping local residents to improve their health and wellbeing, and supporting them to become active citizens in their community.

“We know that active citizens live longer and do better,” he says. “We encourage residents to decide what they want to see happen in the area, and then we collectively work to bring it to fruition with power-holders and decision-makers. It’s quite brilliant work, really. I've got a lot of experience of working with residents who are having the worst experience, but I’ve actually lived amongst people in poverty and have had similar issues as well. It's a privilege to work for them and with them.

“Yeah, this place has poverty. But there's unity. There’s kindness. There’s community. There's resilience. There's a lot of heart. There's a lot of good people.”

Work on its own is not currently a reliable route out of poverty

There are multiple factors that prevent Kristian and his family from improving their income and loosening poverty’s grip.

His job is low-paid and his salary has barely increased since 2004, and his partner, Jennifer, is a full-time carer for their daughter, April, who has Hurler Syndrome (MPS1), a rare degenerative and life-limiting genetic disorder.

“With the amazing help of Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, we have improved her quality of life and will hopefully prolong her life past 10 years,” says Kristian. “With ongoing good care and luck, we are now seeing kids with April’s condition living to their 20s and one or two in their 30s now science has progressed.

When work doesn't pay then we've got a real problem.

“My salary pays the bills, and the family tax credits and benefits pay for everything else - clothes, food, and April’s disability, which costs a phenomenal amount of money as well. The price of everything has gone through the roof.

“When work doesn't pay then we've got a real problem. We were told to study and work hard, have a family, pay your taxes and you’ll be fine. Jobs keep me healthy and well, but, as we are finding more and more, they're not solving the poverty problems. Poverty is a political choice. It’s morally wrong what’s happening, and largely avoidable – we live in an age of plenty, and poverty could be solved if the right political and economic decisions were made.

“I've had to be realistic with what I can and can't do. There's no savings - it’s month to month. There's no holidays, no nice things. I'm not going to grumble, because I have seen homelessness and people with no roof, and people with no food, no gas or electricity, and people with drug and alcohol and mental health problems. And they don't have family and friends, or they don't have their own resilience features (such as family, friends, skills and education) to be able to overcome them.”

Uncertainty and insecurity

I ask Kristian what it’s been like for him, his family and his community since the pandemic began.

“It's a nightmare,” he says, frankly. “April’s got about 15 doctors, all specialists. We've not seen any of them for a year. She’s meant to have three-monthly heart scans, MRIs and blood tests to monitor the degeneration, and it’s been a year. I've not seen any of my family. The kids are doing OK, and Jenny’s been a fabulous mum, but it’s starting to affect her as well. I’ve had to work from home a lot, which has been really tough because it’s a tiny house and my office was the bed.

I'm stressing, but I'm keeping busy because there's a lot of residents out there that are really struggling.

“I'm worried I'm going to lose my job. I'm funded by the fabulous People’s Health Trust, which raises money through The Health Lottery, and people haven't been buying as many lottery tickets recently. Fundraising for a lot of these trusts and charities has gone down significantly so I worry I could get the call any time. So I'm stressing, but I'm keeping busy because there's a lot of residents out there that are really struggling. We've had people who have not been out the whole time.

“Being a grassroots community worker I feel connected to a lot of people. I wake up shaking with anxiety quite a bit because I can’t turn off my internal dialogue and their voices and situations … The weight of what we are trying to do to avert poverty and have worked hard to build is a real challenge for me but the mental health medication has improved my quality of life and keeps it manageable at home and in work.

“We’ve had to work four times as hard, four times as long, it’s four times as complicated and I’m trying to manage my own affairs in the background. But I am a much healthier person physically and mentally if I’m working, so thank God I've been allowed to work.

A lot of the children who are suffering food poverty are coming from families whose parents are working.

“Some community organisations haven't been allowed; local authorities, social workers have not been allowed to come out. But because we are a charitable organisation, our trustees have said if you can do it safely, we need to get out there. We’re having to make up the shortfall because we're one of the only constants on the estate. I've been working late most nights, till 10, 12 o'clock sometimes. It's crisis work, so food, bills, mental health, poverty. I've done a lot of work on holiday hunger - a lot of the children who are suffering food poverty are coming from families whose parents are working.

“We've heard some grim stories that some of our networks are finding people dead in their homes, and they’ve been there for a while. No one's checked because they didn't have anyone, but they would have probably been on somebody's radar somewhere at some point. That timeline and those opportunities are not there now.”

The pandemic’s devastating impact on wellbeing

“We’ve seen people crack up for the first time. For me, I know what it feels like with mental health. I’ve had a couple of breakdowns, clinical depression, where I’ve not slept for days. I’m always working against the grain. I'm always struggling and it's always difficult. But I can now negotiate through some of those things. I can keep afloat. But for the first time we've seen people who’ve always worked, all of a sudden they've lost their jobs. They don't know how to navigate the benefits system, while still trying to keep a roof over their head and support their family.

“We’re seeing lots of missing persons ads in the local media constantly. More than I’ve ever seen around this time of year, and I’ve seen it many times, but the rising suicide rate here is a real concern. This year is going to break the mould even further, significantly.”

But there could be one positive thing that comes out of the pandemic, and that is to expose many of the long-term issues that already affect people in poverty and their communities, which could be a catalyst for change.

“I think COVID has really brought things to the surface, which could be good in the end,” says Kristian. “The beginning of the beginning – let's call it that.”

Kristian's choice of picture

Kristian chose this image to illustrate his story, because: "Only together through collaboration can we achieve wider reform for the common good."

Human hands circle a map of the UK.