Together alone: connecting individual and collective well-being through our work in welfare

We’re in it together, but also alone. No family or individual will have been unaffected by the impact of COVID-19 and some have been particularly hard-hit. Thousands of people have lost friends or loved ones, while others have lost their jobs and had to look to the state for financial support perhaps for the first time. Still more fear for the security of their future employment.

Some people, such as key workers and those from certain ethnic groups, are at greater risk. Many parents are balancing work with the sudden and unexpected challenges of homeschooling. Even within families and households, reactions to the crisis will differ greatly according to each member’s own context and circumstances. Although we have all been affected, we are each experiencing our own, deeply personal, pandemic.

Then there are the plans delayed or thrown into uncertainty, such as weddings, starting or leaving school or university or entering work. We at the Nuffield Foundation had our own plans for the year but, as the scale and severity of COVID-19 became apparent, we quickly realised that things could not simply be business as usual. Before we entered lockdown, we invited proposals to carry out research to understand the social impacts of the crisis in real time and have since awarded £2 million in funding for ten new projects, as well as additional funding to some projects already underway.  

But what of those plans for the year? Back in February, we were finalising a refresh of our priorities for research in our Welfare domain, through which we aim to improve people’s lives by understanding how their well-being is affected by different social and economic factors. These refreshed priorities are defined by how certain individuals and groups are potentially vulnerable to adverse outcomes and how those risks can be mitigated or channelled more positively. Mitigation will, in turn, involve drawing on resources, broadly defined to include financial and physical assets such as money and housing but also less tangible factors such as practical and emotional support. Support may come from oneself, such as through saving for the future, or from family, work, community and the state. We are particularly interested in how these different sources of support interact with major social, economic and technological forces that are shaping our society. We believe that research relating to family, work and the intersection of the two will be particularly resonant with our refreshed Welfare research priorities.

Much has changed since February but in this new world, so sharply defined by the impact of COVID-19, we believe that our refreshed Welfare focus, now published, is as valid as ever. In common with people’s lived experience of the pandemic, our approach brings individual factors together with the collective. Importantly, however, the underlying themes will resonate long beyond this phase of the current crisis. Consider the last economic crash, where the debate gradually shifted from the circumstances surrounding the crash itself to a focus on people’s jobs, living standards, opportunities and well-being. So it is proving to be with the pandemic.

Much was already known about the nature of disadvantage and vulnerability in the UK at the beginning of the crisis, some of it from research we have funded. Indeed, our long-standing focus on these topics meant that we were already unknowingly preparing for a post-pandemic world long before concepts such as lockdowns, social distancing and furloughing entered everyday discourse. Last year’s Intergenerational Audit, for example, showed that those who left education in the depths of the previous two downturns experienced a reduction in real hourly pay afterwards, compared to other cohorts. For those with lower levels of education, the chance of being in work fell by over 20 per cent. Updated analysis shows that those leaving education this year are at even higher risk.

The Nuffield-funded Deaton Review of inequalities in the 21st century is also already yielding valuable insights into the impacts of the crisis and their distribution across people and place. It has shown that coastal areas are notably vulnerable to both health and economic impacts and that areas such as South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire have relatively high health vulnerability combined with children especially at risk from lost schooling. It has also demonstrated that, alongside the stark inequalities in COVID-19 mortality rates between different ethnic groups, men of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin are much more likely than others to work in shut-down sectors, and that black people of both African and Caribbean origin are disproportionately represented in key worker occupations. As the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements have hit mainstream consciousness around the world, they have powerfully highlighted the fundamental need to understand and address the systemic and institutional drivers of inequality and injustice.

There are many other examples showing how our Welfare work is of its time. We are supporting work to deliver a transparent tax-benefit model for the UK that is being used to assess the policy response to COVID-19 and provides the capacity to design and assess alternative solutions. At a time when digital issues have come so sharply to the fore, we are enabling the development of policy recommendations on improving citizens’ data literacy and helping the fight against false online information about the virus through our funding of Full Fact. We have supported the Food Foundation in its tireless campaigning around nutrition for the most vulnerable families, leading to a major recent win on supplementing free schools meals with support during school holidays, albeit helped over the line by Marcus Rashford.  

Welfare remains our most broadly-defined domain, in keeping with our equally broad mission to advance social well-being. Our focus on disadvantage, vulnerability and inequality and their relationships to individual background, characteristics and circumstances remains. Related to this, we believe that the family and work, and the interactions between the two, will be at the heart of many of the challenges and opportunities of a post-pandemic world and, as our refreshed approach to Welfare sets out, we particularly welcome innovative and high-quality proposals on these topics. Whilst we are each experiencing our own personal pandemic, it is through our connections to our families and our livelihoods that many of us will find our own way through it.

About the author


Mark-Franks-Nuffield-Foundation-Together-alone-connecting-individual-and-collective-well-being-through-our-work-in-welfare
Director, Welfare


Mark Franks is Director of Welfare at the Nuffield Foundation. Mark leads the development of the Foundation’s welfare research portfolio and contributes to the organisation’s strategic direction as part of the senior management team.

Before joining the Foundation, Mark was Chief Economist at the Office of Manpower Economics where he played a central role in supporting the UK’s independent public sector pay bodies, whose recommendations affect the pay of 2.4 million workers, involving a paybill of more than £100 billion.

Mark has occupied a number of economist and policy roles across Government, with a particular focus on the labour market. He has worked in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Home Office, HM Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills and in economic consultancy.

Between 2012 and 2015, Mark was responsible for leading analysis for the government of science policy, innovation and the graduate labour market. Previously, he set up a new public sector body, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) and led its secretariat for five years. The MAC’s advice was highly influential in developing policy in area issues including criteria for economic migration, family migration and permanent settlement.

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We improve people’s lives by funding research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare and Justice. We also fund student programmes that give young people skills and confidence in science and research.

We offer our grant-holders the freedom to frame questions and enable new thinking. Our research must stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny, but we understand that to be successful in effecting change, it also needs to be relevant to people’s experience.

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