By Sian Norris
"My kids are getting less time being educated because of the hoops we are forced to jump through because we are poor," explains Lily. "It's not just the one thing. It's how it all piles on top of each other."
Lily is a single mum to her four children, all of whom have additional needs, including autism. Life was a challenge before the coronavirus outbreak. But in this crisis, the challenges of low income, disability, and unpaid care all create interconnecting barriers that disadvantage vulnerable families like hers.
Barrier number one: accessing the free school meal voucher scheme. This was introduced by the Department of Education to help families on low incomes feed their children during the crisis, but it has been "beset with problems" since its introduction. "My children are at different schools which have different systems," Lily explains. "There's always an online queue so it can take over an hour to access the vouchers, and that's an hour where my children can't access the device to do their online learning."
This leads to barrier number two: digital exclusion. Parents are desperate for their children not to miss out on education during this crisis and Lily is no exception. But while she's trying to get free school meal vouchers on the family's shared device, her children can't go online to learn.
A 2019 report from the Office of National Statistics found the number of households with internet access increased with income. Only 51% of homes with an income of £6,000 to £10,000 have home internet compared to 99% of households earning over £40,000. Families with low income are also more likely to rely on pay-as-you-go services to access data. With schools moving lessons online, children like Lily's are struggling to access education on the same level as their wealthier peers.
It's not just digitally that low income families are excluded. Kate Anstey from Child Poverty Action Group explains there are wider issues around access to school resources. "We've been hearing a lot about not having access to printers, stationery and craft materials," she says. "Families who are already under financial pressure are having to go out and buy these things."
Once Lily accesses her free school meal vouchers and gets her kids back online, she faces barrier number three: shopping.
When they launched the free school meal voucher scheme, the Department for Education nominated certain supermarkets where parents could shop: McColl's, Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda, Waitrose and M&S. Aldi has now been added to the list.
"Iceland, where I could bulk buy food, isn't on the list," she explains. "Lidl isn't on the list, and Aldi isn't nearby. Waitrose, M&S, Tesco and Sainsbury's are more expensive." It doesn't help that shoppers using the vouchers don't get change at the checkout.
The Department for Education says it "recognises it may not be convenient or possible for some families to visit one of these supermarkets" and is working on adding more outlets to the list.
But Anstey shares Lily's concerns. "Some of these supermarkets just aren't appropriate or where families would normally do their shopping," she says. "Some families are having to take public transport to visit one of these retailers, potentially making them more exposed to the virus. They're having to make a choice: travel to a store to use the vouchers, or shop locally using their own money."
Lily is frustrated there's stigma at play too. "It's as if they believe I'm feckless because I'm on a low-income," she says. "Because really, why not give cash directly to people as an increase via the existing system?"
Anstey suspects that sentiment is quite widespread. "The voucher scheme can be very stigmatising for families,” she says. "This idea of systematically putting limits on where parents can shop and then asking them to present a voucher at the till is not a very dignified approach."
The Child Poverty Action Group advocates a cash model that is now being picked up by local authorities in Scotland and Wales, as well as by individual schools around the UK. "Cash gives families choice, flexibility and agency," she says.
The limitations imposed on families by the voucher system also has an impact on Lily shopping for her child with autism. Many children living with autism have rigidity around food and are five times more likely to have mealtime challenges.
It's easier for Lily to shop online, as complying with social distancing with four children is practically impossible. But with supermarkets struggling to meet demand, the dreaded 'replacement products' presents a challenge. Her child's autism means "trying new foods can be tricky".
The situation is familiar to Tim Nicholls, head of policy and public Affairs at the National Autistic Society. "We have heard from too many families who are struggling to get food because of the crisis," he explains. "It's often been hard to get the right food too, particularly for some people who have specific or restricted diets. While for most of us, the thought of eating different things or trying new brands is fine, for some autistic people that change of routine or new food texture will cause extreme anxiety or mean they can't eat."
More financial support for families like Lily's is needed, Anstey insists, if we are to avoid widening inequality in this crisis. "What has been missing is targeted support for children and families. There haven't really been any measures put in place aimed at families and children, yet they've been hardest hit by the crisis."
A lot has been said about how we are in the same storm during this pandemic, but we're not all in the same boat. As Lily's story shows, families experiencing multiple disadvantages are especially vulnerable. Not enough support is in place to help them overcome multiple barriers. Unless there's urgent action, an already wide inequality gap will become bigger.
Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She is the founder and director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. You can follow her on Twitter here.
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