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Vital local support networks are an increasingly fragile lifeline in the cost-of-living crisis

The cost-of-living crisis is pulling low-income communities deeper into poverty. For those most vulnerable, support from family, friends, charities, and community groups is proving a crucial lifeline. Yet, these networks of “goodwill” are being depleted, carrying significant social and emotional costs, explain Emma Hyde, Thomas Adnan-Smith and Daniel Edmiston.

The past year has been especially challenging for many families as energy bills and prices have soared. Like COVID-19, the current crisis has further highlighted how connected we are to family, friends, and community. Amid rising inflation, support from family and friends has been particularly important for younger and low-income groups with minimal or no access to financial buffers or formal credit. Yet, over a decade of austerity measures and the “colliding” of COVID-19 and the cost-of-living crisis has both sharpened the vulnerabilities of poverty and depleted the local support systems available to low-income communities.

Drawing on informal support is part of a wider balancing act of survival

We explored the changing profile of poverty through qualitative longitudinal, ethnographic research with 40 people living on a very low income across one city in the North of England. As living costs increased, we sought to better understand the livelihoods, challenges, outcomes, and needs of those being pulled into deeper forms of financial crisis. The project findings show the devastating impacts of extreme privation on health, relationships, dignity and longer-term financial resilience.

In addition to a much wider range of material and affective strategies aimed at mitigating the impacts of deepening poverty, the centrality and vulnerability of informal support was striking. Daily strategies included: bill-juggling; pawning belongings; accumulating debts; and choosing between “heating and eating”. Despite these immense sacrifices, many also needed to turn to informal support to try and keep safe, warm and fed.

Informal support networks are at breaking point

As people sank deeper, so too did their friends and family who were “in a similar boat” due to rising inflation. With usual support networks mutually strained, seeking “emergency” help from charities who are also “running on empty” became necessary and routine. In times of economic crisis, previous research has shown how uneven vulnerabilities and consequences are powerfully revealed in people’s everyday lives and relationships. For those in the deepest forms of poverty, these dynamics are most acutely felt but also become much harder to see. Judith[i] faced considerable debt and household arrears following delays and ongoing uncertainty surrounding her social security entitlements. Alongside deteriorating mental health, Judith was often unable to afford the basics. Feeling hugely indebted, Judith described “living off” informal support – but these networks were struggling due to the cost-of-living crisis, and she sometimes went “without food” as a result

“I borrow money off family and friends for food… but they’re struggling as well. I haven’t been able to offer them anything back so it’s like I’m taking, taking, taking … And then foodbanks. I’m phoning [charity] up. Just anybody who can get me a food parcel… That’s what I’m living off … or days I can go without food… I’ll have to ask for fuel vouchers off people, borrow money off family – but that’s getting harder and harder because everybody’s struggling…” (Judith, female, white, 55-64)

Joanne also found herself “in debt with everything” and in regular need of charitable food vouchers. For Joanne, financial indebtedness to family members also facing hardship was extremely distressing, but ultimately the only option:

“Sometimes I go to mum’s and have my dinner there. Me and my daughter, we do sleep there sometimes, especially when I’ve got no electric in the house … I don’t like borrowing from my family… suppose I can’t pay them back and then that’s another argument… I try my best not to.” (Joanne, female, Black, 45-54)

Informal support was particularly crucial for those with dependent children. Lone parent, Jeff, was facing benefit deductions to his social security payments and money was not lasting the month. Whilst charitable vouchers often kept Jeff’s electric running, this support only went so far, and he still needed to borrow from family to keep the meter on:

“[Charity] got me a washer, a mattress for [son’s] bed… heating vouchers for electric… But because that’s an electric meter, it’s only got about two quid left on it, and it uses about three quid a day. So, I’m going to have to go up to my mam’s later and borrow some money off her for electric to do until Monday.” (Jeff, male, white, 35-55)

These experiences were sadly very typical with families doing a lot of (rarely seen, often invisible) financial, practical, and emotional labour to help each other bridge the gap between incomes and basic needs. The availability of support fluctuated, and people constantly navigated between different groups to get by. Despite this regular support, use of emergency food aid was commonplace.

Some people did not always have family and friends for support. Others felt too embarrassed to reach out or felt they had to “survive” alone. Without help from third-sector organisations, many were left without essentials. Like others, Eloise felt both gratitude and shame after a local charity provided food parcels and beds for her children:

“I’m really, really grateful for everything, but I just feel like I should be able to do that, and I just beat myself up about it… I try not to let [my children] know… I don’t want them to think that we’re poor…” (Eloise, female, Mixed ethnicity, 35-44)

In this way, many of those at the sharpest end of the cost-of-living crisis further internalised the stigma associated with poverty and talked about the shame of “being reduced to this”. Whilst many attributed their survival to external support, these experiences further underline that informal support networks are not a stable safety-net in low-income lives and difficulty “giving back” presents an additional mental burden with tensions emerging within social and familial networks.

Many are suffering alone

Amid unprecedented demand, charitable support has become increasingly “rationed” and contingent upon new referral conditions and pathways. Local staff and volunteers are burnt out. Supply just isn’t able to meet the rising level and complexity of need. Some people spent hours trying to reach third-sector organisations on the phone, and others had been turned away from foodbanks due to restrictions on the number of visits permitted. As a result, many were unable to access the ongoing crisis support they needed.

Whilst charitable assistance acts as a vital “shock-absorber” in times of crisis, this can also obscure the fullest impacts and effects of socio-material insecurity. Yet, as people face greater difficulty accessing finite third-sector assistance, a worrying implication is that they not only suffer alone but become less visible with their needs less readily observable across local communities.

Demanding longer-term solutions to poverty, over 90 charities recently called on the government to ensure the UK social security system covers the cost of essentials. While this has to be the priority, we also need to better understand and respond to needs arising at the local level in the meantime. In particular, it is crucial that the extent of unmet need is fully appreciated and made visible. Jointly published data on the calls not answered, the food parcels denied, and the Household Support Fund applications rejected from local authorities and third-sector organisations could better evidence the incidence and severity of poverty as well as where resources are most urgently needed.

[i] All participant names have been changed.


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