As a disabled lone parent & carer to my 17 year old son; in receipt of legacy benefits since 2005, the Covid-19 pandemic meant life became even tougher for folk like me yet our stories weren’t being told. Furthermore, demonising rhetoric against benefit claimants was rife. I wanted to change that. But how?
I’ve been an “accidental activist” & anti-poverty campaigner since 2018. A Year Like No Other was the ideal opportunity to amplify not only my stories, but those of the community in which I live - ordinary people suffering from twelve years of Government-induced austerity, but were, perhaps. too worried to speak out for fear of sanctions. I wanted to counteract public cynicism whilst influencing policy makers’ decisions for the better.
The book, produced by the Covid Realities research team, was the culmination of a groundbreaking qualitative research project jointly designed by The Universities of York & Birmingham in collaboration with the Child Poverty Action Group, funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The project sought to highlight the economic & social injustices already being experienced by families with children under 19 years old living on low incomes and how life worsened for them during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Through a uniquely collaborative approach with participants like me, the book draws together the themes elucidated from their research & gives voice to those whose struggles are traditionally sidelined through more quantitative methods of describing hardship through graphs & statistics. Initially designed to run for one year only, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic meant the project ran for 2 years until June 2022.
Involving over 100 participants nationwide, I & my fellow participants had the opportunity to tell our stories about how we were coping (or not in many instances) with the impact of the pandemic upon our family lives with respect to lockdown, home schooling, social security provision & the aftermath of Government policy decisions. In doing so, the stigma, iniquity &, quite frankly, cruelty rife in our current social security system & some sections of society was highlighted. More importantly, we proposed our own solutions for making the system work for everyone so that every family in every part of the UK can thrive.
The sense of camaraderie between participants & researchers was superb. Whilst the pandemic threw into stark relief how life can change in an instant through circumstances beyond our control, through Regular “Big Ideas Meetings” via Zoom we knew we were not alone. “The Big Question of The Week” gave real-time opportunities to highlight injustice within current systems, whilst writing diary entries about our struggles provided a welcome sense of catharsis.
For example, those on legacy benefits were ineligible for the much needed, albeit temporary, £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit (UC); losing out on an additional £1040. Chancellor Rishi Sunak extended the lifeline for an additional 6 months, but it was still withdrawn in October 2021 in spite of intensive campaigning from many quarters, including us.
Even so, being part of Covid Realities felt like our concerns were finally being taken more seriously by The Establishment because we had the backing of academics. We had the opportunity of speaking with journalists across all media platforms to highlight our cause & even to those in power. It was an honour & a privilege to be part of something so special.
The publication of A Year Like No Other means our experiences of injustice at a time of national crisis have been preserved in perpetuity. We may only ever be a “whisper in history” as described by participant Victoria, but those whispers mean we were still there, living it. The book's launch during Challenge Poverty Week in England & Wales is a timely & relevant reminder of the struggles still ongoing.
If you were to read the book, you will find many stories that may resonate with your own experiences; experiences that make for poignant, uncomfortable reading but may also make you feel justifiably indignant or outraged that you, we & ordinary people have been treated so disrespectfully for years. Perhaps you too may become an “accidental activist” like me as a result. I do hope so.
And with the advent of the Cost Of Living Crisis, expect to hear more from us in the new project: Changing Realities. Read more about it here & come join us. After all, even the largest river starts with a single drop of water. Together we can help each other stay afloat.
You can order A Year Like No Other here. Enter discount code POAYLNO for a 30% discount off the cover price.
We launch the book on Wednesday 19th October, at 7.30pm. Shirley and other participants will read extracts from the book and there'll be responses from Kerry Hudson, Prof Kate Pickett and John Harris. Sign up to attend here.