Seeking an anchor in an unstable world: experiences of low-income families over time

This report draws on the experiences of 14 low-income families over a five-year period ending on the eve of the pandemic. It identifies what helped families to keep afloat and what threatened to pull them under as they navigated through choppy waters.

We all want children to grow up in families where they can flourish. It’s not right that many parents cannot afford to provide what their children need, or are constantly at risk of being swept into poverty. This report draws on the experiences of 14 low-income families over a five-year period ending on the eve of the pandemic. It identifies what helped families to keep afloat and what threatened to pull them under as they navigated through choppy waters.

Good jobs which provide a route out of poverty, a social security system people can rely on when they are struggling and decent, affordable homes provide the anchor that families need in an unstable world.

What you need to know

  • Living on a low income involved precarity with ups and downs over time. While some families on low incomes were ‘getting by’, and managing to keep up with outgoings, they were often working hard to keep their heads above water, and risked being pushed into deeper difficulty. Over a five-year period, the 14 families’ situations often fluctuated as changes in work, benefits, and family circumstances impacted on their ability to make ends meet.
  • The factors most likely to help families get by or improve their lives were: steady work, two wages in the family, access to health-related benefits, reduced need for childcare as children got older, formal support and support from extended family. Secure and affordable housing also helped, with support towards rent from housing benefit crucial for those who were finding it hard to manage.
  • Conversely, families were most likely to find it hard to keep afloat if they faced: unstable work, poor health, constraints balancing work and childcare, delays and difficulties with benefits, and high housing costs.

(This report shares a joint Findings document with our report Staying afloat in a crisis: families with low incomes in the pandemic).

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