Seven in 10 young women claiming benefits say they were forced to apply for welfare payments for the first time during the pandemic, a new study has found.
The poll, of 4,000 women aged between 18 and 30, found 12 per cent of those surveyed had applied for benefits since lockdown was implemented in March.
While researchers at the Young Women’s Trust, which supports young women on low or no pay, found around a quarter of young women with children had claimed benefits since the country went into lockdown.
They were grappling with an “unprecedented crisis” due to “walking a tightrope” of economic anxiety, unsafe working conditions and a “complex and unfair” benefits system, the charity warned.
An estimated 1.5 million young women were found to have lost income since the start of the coronavirus crisis – with researchers warning a generation is “paying the price” for the public health emergency.
Simone, who didn’t want her surname used, told The Independent she was forced to start claiming universal credit in September after struggling to find work in the wake of the pandemic.
The 26-year-old, who worked in fashion retail for eight years, said: “The pandemic has made it so much harder to find work. Not hearing back is crushing. Especially when you have so much experience. I was a supervisor in my old role, but now I’m even getting rejected from lower-level roles.
“Looking for work is aimless because everyone is going for all the same roles but the jobs are limited. There is so much economic uncertainty. It is hard because your friends want to go for dinner but you have to sit back and think I can’t afford it. It is isolating. It is your independence which goes. There is a lot of guilt about spending money on anything at all.
“I haven’t been in this situation before. I never thought this would happen. I’ve always been working. I’m experiencing a lot of anxiety. I get very down and insecure about my skills and I’m kept up at night worrying. The positive and joyful side of life has disappeared. The reality is, I’m in a situation which I can’t get out of.”
Simone, who has one daughter, said she cries about the situation and added that perpetually being rejected from jobs is destroying her confidence. She said it is difficult to get jobs in retail now her school is no longer offering the after-school childcare she used before the pandemic hit.
She will not be able to afford to spend like she usually does this Christmas and her daughter will have to make do with small presents confined to a tight budget, Simone added.
The charity discovered an estimated 750,000 young women were forced to go into work despite anxiety around whether they were properly protected against contracting coronavirus. While 16 per cent of young women polled said they had to work without personal protective equipment (PPE) or other safety gear.
Researchers found half of young women with children said they were forced to leave a job or could not apply for a job due to childcare costs – a substantial increase from the third who said the same when the charity carried out a report last year.
Some 13 per cent of young women skipped meals to make ends meet, while 35 per cent of young women who are single parents had gone without food.
A woman, who did not want her name used, told researchers: “There was no childcare. I was the teacher. I was the mother. I was the maid. I was the carer. I was everyone. Everything.”
Campaigners – who warned the health crisis has taken “its toll” on young women’s personal finances, home life, work life, mental health and wellbeing – found just one in nine had faith in the government doing “what’s right for them”.
While some 57 per cent of young women said they had concerns about their mental health – a notable rise from the 51 per cent who had such worries last year.
Esther Sample, the report’s author, said: “Young women are facing an unprecedented crisis, with many walking a tightrope of financial worry, unsafe work and a complex and unfair benefits system and are now paying the price for the pandemic.
“A plan for young women that focusses on longer-term, safe work, a fair benefits system and accessible mental health support are all needed to right the wrongs we have seen since this pandemic started. If the government truly wants to help the country recover from the crisis, they need to reconnect with young women, especially those facing additional discrimination and barriers.”
Almost two in 10 young women said they felt they “have no one to turn to” – with the figure rising to almost half for single mothers.
Dionne Boateng, who interviewed young women for the study, said: “Sadly I wasn’t surprised that many young women are still having a tough time at work and home, more likely to experience workplace discrimination and caring for children and family.
“But unfortunately 2020 has seen new forms of sexism creep in too, leaving young women at risk and feeling helpless because of the virus. Young women I spoke to had worked with limited PPE, often on zero-hours contracts, with no social distancing and forced into work that wasn’t safe and barely allowed them to make ends meet.”
A series of studies found women bore the brunt of childcare responsibilities, household chores and home schooling during the first national lockdown – irrespective of whether they were juggling this with a job or not.
Women have also been disproportionately impacted by the recession triggered by the health emergency due to being over-represented in sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, such as hospitality, retail, leisure, tourism and the arts. Research by the University of Exeter found women were almost twice as likely as men to have lost their job during Covid’s first wave.