The coronavirus pandemic has left many in precarious situations – but young women on low incomes have suffered more than most.
Women aged 18-30 were least likely to have their furlough continued, according to new research from the Fawcett Society charity and other equality organisations, shared exclusively with HuffPost UK, which looks at how the pandemic has affected young women’s financial health, mental health and their lives in general.
Twice as many young women from low-income households (43%) said their financial situation had worsened compared to 21% of young women from higher-income households, the research found. Among young men, 35% from low-income households and 16% from higher-income households said their finances had got worse.
Over half (57%) of young women from low-income households said their mental health had also deteriorated during the pandemic compared to young women from higher-income households (49%) and young men of all income levels.
To make matters worse, the £20 per week uplift introduced in April 2020 for those on Universal Credit is soon set to stop – leaving those who relied on the extra income very vulnerable.
Gemma Hurst, 26, from Northumberland has experienced first-hand the stigma of Universal Credit – especially as someone who relies on that extra £20.
After losing her job in the pandemic, Hurst, who worked in retail to supplement her career ambitions in media, has been on universal credit for 11 months.
“I’m the first person in my family to be on universal credit,” she said. “And it’s not a very nice situation. I want to work in journalism and when I lost my job, I was thinking, ‘Right I’m going to use this time to really work on myself and improve my portfolio.’ But being on Universal Credit is like a full-time job. You’ve go to fill in forms and apply for lots of different things. It’s quite exhausting. I’ve got a couple of job interviews this week, which is really good.
“That £20 uplift means a lot to me because I’ve got no online presence to build my journalism portfolio, so I use that £20 to keep my blog and my portfolio running. The money is giving me the opportunity to put my writing out there. So it’s helped my career and I need the uplift to keep it going.”
Fawcett’s research found that the reasons why young women fare worse is due to the industries they tend to work in, such as hospitality, which has been heavily affected in the past year. The charity is now calling on the government to protect this cohort of people.
Felicia Willow, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said: “The needs of women and girls have been largely ignored throughout the pandemic and we’re seeing the impact of this on their mental health and financial security. This report brings into sharp focus how uncertain the future is for young women on low incomes.
“Young women are valuable to the economy and the government needs to harness their skills and abilities as the country recovers. We also need a stronger safety net which includes the continuation of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, financial support for the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, and investment in early years and social care. The needs of young women must not be forgotten again as we build back fairer.”
The £20 Universal Credit uplift was due to stop in March 2021 but after pressure to keep it going, Rishi Sunak extended it for a further six months. Campaigners are now urging the chancellor to continue the top-up beyond the deadline.
Caroline Bernard, director of communications at the charity, Young Women’s Trust, said it was vital for the government to nurture young women, who are statistically the most educated they have ever been.
“Young women on low incomes have been amongst the worst affected by the pandemic, picking up the pieces as they juggle caring responsibilities, unsafe work and insecure jobs,” she says.
“This has increased the inequality they were already facing, with catastrophic consequences. This report also highlights the stark impact of the pandemic on young women’s future plans, as the knock on effects continue well beyond this year.
“With the government still planning to cut the £20 uplift to Universal Credit this autumn, there is a risk that young women will be left behind in the recovery from the pandemic. This report is further evidence of the need for the government to listen to the voices of young women who have endured so much over the last 18 months.”
Commenting on the £20 Universal Credit uplift, a government spokesperson said: “Universal Credit has provided a vital safety net for six million people during the pandemic and the temporary uplift was part of a £400bn support package.
“As Gemma’s case shows, the support offered through Universal Credit is helping people apply for roles and secure interviews. That’s why it’s right that our focus now is on our multi-billion pound Plan for Jobs, which will support people in the long-term to learn new skills and increase their hours or find new work.”