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Unemployment in lockdown: why are we still so quick to judge people?

It’s hard to believe that so many people still have a judgmental attitude towards job loss and unemployment in the pandemic, but new research shows that this is exactly what’s happening. 

What will actually change when the pandemic is behind us?

Ever since it first started just over a year ago, there have been global discussions about the lessons we must learn from this. Flexible working is a big one, with the realisation that so many of us can do our jobs from home. Taking extra steps to protect and ensure the future of our NHS is another. And we must continue to address the inequalities in society that have been brought to the surface over the last 12 months.

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But recent research from Kings College London (KCL) has shown that – despite unemployment, low income, homelessness and relying on Universal Credit (UC) being a plain reality for so many more people in the pandemic – the collective attitude towards the inequalities connected to work and employment is perhaps just as discriminating as it was before.

The Guardian reports that unemployment in the UK rose to 1.74 million people in February, its highest level in five years. Business shutdowns are disproportionately affecting women and ethnic minorities. And, last year, a survey found that half of working mothers were unable to access the childcare they need to return to work.

But according to the KCL findings, nearly half of people surveyed believe those who lost their jobs during the pandemic were likely to have been underperforming. Shockingly, one in eight think lower earnings and higher unemployment among Black people are due to a lack of motivation or willpower.  

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Danna is a 31-year-old mother of two who is part of Parents And Communities Together (PACT), a Citizens UK community-led social support project. She hasn’t been able to work during the pandemic because, alongside looking after her young children, she has been focusing on her studies. Danna needs to share her Universal Credit account with her ex-partner because they still live together in order to share childcare responsibilities. Money has, understandably, been a big issue in their home over the last year.

“I have seen so many women living under the same circumstances,” says Danna. She had worked in hospitality for seven years after relocating from Spain, until learning from friends that she could study and train for a new career. “You have aspirations to keep going. But sometimes you can find obstacles in the way. The government needs to help more – not just with money, it’s also about explaining the services available and having people who can talk to you. If society thinks that unemployment is lack of motivation, I’d argue that it’s lack of information as well.”

Responding to the KCL report, Danna adds: “The concerns of every single person is different. We cannot generalise. We need to know what that person is going through, how they are living, why a person behaves a certain way… there are so many factors.

“I think the pandemic will eventually change attitudes because people who have never received UC before are now in need of it to pay the bills and support their family. So that will be a big learning for a lot of people.”

Unemployed mother
Working mothers are some of the worst hit by the pandemic.

Carina, 31, is also a parent leader and member of PACT, with three children under 11. Before the pandemic, she worked part time because her partner’s shift patterns were varied and they found it difficult and expensive to find stable childcare. Relating to the findings from the KCL study, Carina says that she was always left feeling “bad” and “frustrated” at the Job Centre because she was “not trying hard enough” to find a job (despite the fact that she could only work a role with very flexible hours). 

When she started volunteering for action campaigns about housing, Carina says she faced comments such as, “If you can volunteer, then you can work – you don’t need to be on benefits.” Regardless of this, she continued to develop her confidence as a volunteer and signed up to start a counselling course at university this year. She also took on cleaning jobs for a little bit of extra income, but they ended when the pandemic started. 

Carina urges anyone who thinks unemployed people have a “lack of motivation” to first seriously consider what it’s like to be a working parent. “I looked for childminders for my youngest – it was £186 for one child for three days a week,” she says. “Before I met current partner, I was a single parent. People do want to go back to work but they struggle with childcare. A lot of childcare places want a month [of fees] in advance. Also, people want to buy appropriate clothes to get back into work but they just don’t have that income.”

Like Danna, Carina also believes the pandemic will widen conversations and change attitudes: “The pandemic is causing a lot of people to lose their jobs, so it’s shining a light on people’s attitudes to being jobless. In a way, it can be a good thing, because we’re talking about it more and the negative attitudes. One bit of the report said that people who got fired in the pandemic are probably underperforming – it’s just not the case.”

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Husna Mortuza, deputy director for advocacy and public Engagement at social change organisation Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that, even before the pandemic, people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, and lone parents – most of whom are women – were more likely to be in poverty even if they were in work. “These same groups are among those hardest hit by the impact of Covid-19,” she tells Stylist

Despite there still clearly being a long way to go in getting society to better understand this, Mortuza says: “We know from our own research that the British public identifies with values of compassion and justice, and we have seen this in action whether it is support for Marcus Rashford’s campaign on Free School Meals or support for the £20 uplift for those on Universal Credit. We have recognised that as a society we can take action on some of the factors which pull people into poverty, like benefit levels that are too low, as well as understanding the importance of a safety net that is available for us all when we need it the most.”

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She adds: “We need to have a national conversation about poverty in the UK from this position, and by asking how we as a society can truly reflect our values by reducing poverty and creating a more equal society.”

So, will real change actually happen? It’s just not right to continue judging people like this in a pandemic. In fact, this should be the turning point – it is an opportunity that we cannot afford to waste.

Find out more information about the work JRF is doing to help create social change around poverty in the UK on its website.

Anyone who wants more details on the work that PACT does to support and empower parents can find more information on its website

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