Poverty dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK (BPI Webinar)

Bristol Poverty Institute COVID-19 Webinars

Poverty dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK

On Thursday 11 June the Bristol Poverty Institute (BPI) held the first webinar in our new COVID-19 series: Poverty Dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK. The webinar had around 60 attendees on the day representing a range of sectors and organisations including local governance, international NGOs, independent journalists and consultants, and academics from around the world. This diverse audience was deliberate: the series has been designed to bring together a variety of participants representing different sectors, with a range of theoretical, methodological, and disciplinary approaches. We recognise that different professional, academic, and civic communities will have access to different sources of information, datasets, and tools for analysis, and may also have different immediate priorities. We are, however, all driven by the ultimate aim of reducing the negative impacts of this global pandemic on all aspects of society, and particularly on those communities and individuals who are already experiencing disadvantages. By bringing together a range of perspectives we sought to improve our understanding of the poverty dimensions of this pandemic, and by extension our ability to influence policy and practice in order to mitigate its negative impacts.

Our Poverty Dimensions of COVID-19 in the UK webinar featured four fantastic speakers who explored different dimensions from different perspectives. Each talk lasted 15minutes, with opportunity for a short Q&A following each presentation. The slides from these presentations are available on the BPI website, and in due course we will also be uploading recordings of the presentations.

Professor David Gordon

COVID-19 and Poverty in the UK

The first speaker was Professor David Gordon, Professor of Social Justice and the Director of the Bristol Poverty Institute and Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research at the University of Bristol.

Professor Gordon’s talk highlighted how marginalised people are usually those at greatest risk during a pandemic, sharing figures from the Office for National Statistics which showed that death rates from COVID-19 infections in March and April were twice as high in the poorest areas of the UK compared to the richest areas. He identified several reasons why people in poor areas are more likely to contract COVID-19 including the facts that:

  • They are more likely to be key workers, many of whom are low paid and often live in deprived areas.
  • They are more likely to have worse internet connections and not be able to afford the premium for online grocery shopping and therefore need to shop more often, putting themselves at risk.
  • Deprived areas tend to have higher population densities, meaning increased contact with a potentially infected person.

Professor Gordon additionally highlighted that poor people are more likely to die from COVID-19 infection for a number of reasons, including the fact that people in deprived areas are more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions that are associated with higher mortality rates – such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer – because of factors including higher levels of pollution in deprived areas, greater stress levels, and greater risk of H. Piori  infections in childhood. He also highlighted that the ‘Inverse Care Law’ also unfortunately still affected the health service, whereby the quality of health care is often inversely related to the health need, meaning that on average deprived areas have worse health care than richer areas.

Professor Gordon concluded with a worrying statistic from the Food Foundation survey that 4.9million adults are currently food insecure compared with 2million pre lockdown, and 1.7million children live in these households. The pandemic may therefore increase inequality and relative poverty in the UK to levels not seen since before the introduction of the welfare state in 1948.


Mr Thomas Croft

Digital exclusion, multidimensional poverty and COVID-19

The second speaker was Mr Thomas Croft, a National Coordinator for ATD Fourth World UK who are an international human-rights focussed anti-poverty organisation.

Mr Croft talked about a research study ATD Fourth World UK had been involved with in partnership with the University of Oxford on Understanding Poverty in All its Forms; A participatory research study into poverty in the UK, and how COVID-19 had added new dimensions and challenges.  He explained the process of the research journey which involved developing research tools, planning, and facilitating groups, holding peer group meetings to discuss what poverty means to them and to identify aspects of poverty and group into dimensions. The themes raised through this study included:

  • Disempowering systems, structures, and policies
  • Financial insecurity, financial exclusion, and debt
  • Damaged health and wellbeing
  • Stigma, blame and judgement
  • Lack of control over choices
  • Unrecognized struggles, skills, and contributions

Mr Croft went on to discuss the core experiences people had highlighted, and the relational dynamics and privations involved. He noted that there were modifying factors in each of these, including cultural beliefs, environment and environmental policy, identity, location and timing and duration. Mr Croft concluded by noting that the social side of people’s relationships and connections with other members of the community was a constant theme; however, this manifested itself in different ways and therefore further highlighted the importance of working with different communities.


Professor Sharon Collard

The impact of COVID-19 on financial wellbeing

The third speaker was Professor Sharon Collard, the Research Director of the Personal Finance Research Centre and a Professor of Personal Finance at the University of Bristol.

Professor Collard opened by highlighting that the financial wellbeing of the UK was not in great shape before COVID-19, with events such as the welfare reform having had damaging effects. Professor Collard reported how Standard Life Foundation have commissioned a COVID-19 Financial Impact Tracker, which is a monthly tracker conducted by YouGov where c.6500 people across the UK are asked about how COVID-19 has affected their household finances and its likely impact over the next 12 months. She explained how The University of Bristol team designed the survey and analysed the data and shared findings on the first three weeks of lockdown, including the fact that half of all UK households believe they will struggle to meet their financial commitments and the fact that renters seem to be greater impacted than home-owners.

Professor Collard concluded by identifying key policy gaps and noting that whilst there are furlough schemes and help for self-employed people there is not a great amount of help for people who were struggling before. Rules and regulations make it hard for low income homeowners and middle-income homeowners. Her closing statement re-emphasised how inequalities existed before COVID-19, and that we need to ensure that we do not forget the fact that the old ‘normal’ was not a good normal.


Mr Ben Carpenter

Opportunities in South Bristol

The final speaker was Mr Ben Carpenter, a Youth and Community Worker and founder of Grassroot Communities in Bristol, who is also a City Fellow of the University of Bristol, working to ensure that communities at the margins are critical knowledge producers in decision-making around city futures. Grassroot Communities is an organisation that tailors and delivers school, youth and community work projects based on the wants and needs of local people.

Mr Carpenter began by introducing his own background growing up in a challenging environment, and why his own experience made his goal to become a youth and community worker. He believes that opportunities are the key to supporting people out of poverty. Mr Carpenter highlighted some key statistics around poverty in South Bristol, including the fact that the ten areas identified as having the highest levels of deprivation across the city are all in South Bristol, with some of these areas being rated in the top 1% nationally. He highlighted the difference that having a little bit of money could have on the home environment, particularly in terms of stress, friction, and freedom; however, money alone does not necessarily create opportunity. He noted, for example, how if one parent has been to prison, the child is more likely to go to prison, same with living in poverty or going onto higher education. Mr Carpenter also reported that levels of addiction and violence tend to be higher in more marginalised communities, adding more challenges for young people growing up in these environments.

Framed by these observations and statistics, Mr Carpenter therefore recommended that we look at meaningful, tailored interventions, based on the wants and needs of the community.  He believes that role models, raising aspirations and most important opportunities can provide steppingstones out of poverty and gangs. His projects such as Reconnect, Community Champions and the Grassroot Activators Programme act as engagement tools and interventions and can create opportunities for young people to believe in themselves and give them confidence. He concluded by highlighting that all these situations and challenges will be exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19, and that further cuts will continue to impact those who are most in need.


Concluding remarks

In conclusion, the poverty dimensions of this pandemic in the UK are wide-ranging and complex. This first webinar has therefore served to set the scene for the ensuing series, identifying some of the key topics, challenges, and policy issues. Building on this first webinar University of Bristol researchers will be able to apply to host their own webinar within this series in collaboration with external partner(s). Future webinars may have different regional and/or thematic foci, exploring the various dimensions of how this pandemic will impact on lives across the globe.

For more information or to discuss an idea please get in touch with BPI Manager Dr Lauren Winch (lauren.winch@bristol.ac.uk).

Check out our website: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/poverty-institute/

Follow us on Twitter: @bristolpoverty


Authored by Lauren Winch and Melanie Tomlin