The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting on all our lives, albeit in markedly different ways. A frequently over-looked population, especially in family research, are young fathers. Even before the crisis, young fathers (aged 25 and under) already faced a range of disadvantages and were stigmatised because of their young age and gender. This blog considers the uneven and disproportionate impact of the crisis on these young men and reflects in brief, on emerging insights about the impacts the pandemic is already beginning to have on their lives and family relationships.
Impacts on low-income families
We do not yet fully appreciate the extent to which the crisis will impact on the relationships of young fathers, although the effects on families more generally are likely to be uneven and exacerbated by existing inequalities. Families with dependent children and those living in poverty especially, are expected to be disproportionately and adversely affected by the financial, social and relational implications of the pandemic and the associated government response (Patrick et al. 2020). There are early indications that these families are already struggling with the additional costs of raising children, and of having to accommodate childcare, reductions to income or job loss.
Impacts on the relationships and families of young fathers
The Following Young Fathers Further study is exploring the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on the personal and family relationships of young fathers. Research we conducted prior to the pandemic suggests that these young men already faced a specific set of disadvantages across their parenting journeys that could affect the extent of their involvement in their children’s lives. This includes any combination of poverty; limited support in education, training or employment (EET); addiction and alcohol or substance abuse; unstable housing; volatile family backgrounds and periods in care; mental health issues; or experiences of offending and domestic violence (as both victims and perpetrators). Young fathers’ living arrangements, whether they are living with their own parents, a partner or alone, can also present challenges for managing relationships both within and outside the household. Megan Jarvie from Coram Family and Childcare, one of our project partners, observes:
It is well documented that COVID-19 affects the vulnerable, but less considered are how the actions taken to mitigate the virus cause hardship for those already socially excluded or lacking stability. At Coram Family and Childcare we run the Young Dads Collective which works to improve the lives of young dads and their children by tackling the disadvantages that hold them back. Even before the pandemic, the young fathers we worked with faced an uphill battle to secure housing and work. They knew that being a good dad was about much more than providing money for children, but giving love and attention is more challenging without a home where you can safely play with your child. For young fathers that do not live with their children, social distancing measures will mean that maintaining contact is less possible. Resuming contact after lockdown could also be more difficult. Young fathers are more likely to be the low paid workers bearing the brunt of the shutdown and likely recession, making it harder to pay the rent. Sofa surfing will also become more difficult as friends and family avoid mixing beyond their household group. The severity of the current crisis demands that Government focus on saving lives, but it is important that the needs of this already excluded group are not forgotten.
Despite the challenges young fathers may face, we know that they express a distinct desire for positive involvement in their children lives and to ‘be there’ for them (Neale et al. 2015). If we provide these young men with structured and compassionate support, they can be more involved as fathers (Tarrant and Neale, 2017). In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, this has become even more pressing.
As the pandemic unfolds, the Following Young Fathers Further team are documenting the impacts of the pandemic and associated policy change on young fathers and their families both in the short, medium- and longer term. Our qualitative longitudinal study, which has been funded via the UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship scheme for four years, is well-placed to capture these effects as they unfold over time. We are currently exploring creative fieldwork approaches based on the ethos of co-production that underpins our study. We are working with our participants to develop methods that respect the rules of social distancing but also ensure that we continue to work with young fathers in ethical and sensitive ways.
To enhance the value and reach of these findings, the project has also joined a consortium of national researchers exploring the impacts of COVID-19 on low-income families. The Nuffield Foundation funded study aims to capture how support organisations and those reliant on the social security system, respond to the pandemic. The study will collate data from ongoing studies to explore how families in poverty are experiencing the crisis now and in the longer term; develop a dedicated space for researchers to consider how best to research with families in ethical and sensitive ways; and support families themselves to document their experiences as they unfold. Working alongside this national group of social researchers and with young fathers and their families, means we are better able to understand the wide-ranging impacts of the crisis. We also aim to influence the evolving practice and policy response in participatory ways and to contribute to a much longer history of evidence about how low-income families experience and respond in crisis contexts.