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Single Parent Families – Trapped Within a Pernicious Intersection of Welfare Reform Policies

In the 90’s the state abandoned single parent mothers. They are now regulated within an inch of their lives.

Sue Cohen

In the Thatcher and post Thatcher periods under Conservative rule, high numbers of single parents were overly dependent on social security stigmatized by the establishment, existing in deeply embedded poverty. And yet conversely, they had more time to care for their children, more time to train on courses, more space to build up supportive social networks that acted as a form of resistance.

Single parents are now so regulated by the state that they experience both material and time poverty with little space to manoeuvre. In the era of austerity one parent families are trapped within a pernicious intersection of welfare reform policies that arguably leave children and parents more vulnerable to material and social deprivation than at any time in recent history.

Not only have austerity policies dramatically reduced public services that supported caring responsibilities, the combination of welfare sanctions, the cap in housing benefits, and the ever-increasing in-work poverty, food poverty and time poverty are proving toxic to family welfare.

Single parent families are more likely than two parent families:

  • To experience poverty From 2010 – 2020 single mothers, 92% of single parents, will experience an average drop in living standards of 18% (£8,790) as a result of tax and benefit changes and lost services.
  • To experience in-work poverty Child poverty among working single parent families has returned to the highs seen 20 years ago and is steadily rising, presently around 50% – predicted to rise to 60% by 2021.
  • To receive benefit sanctions One in 7 single parents were sanctioned in a recent peak the majority unfairly. 62% of formal challenges to single parent sanctions were successful, but many of these same families left in deep debt.
  • To be made homeless 38,390 single parent families homeless in temporary accommodation accounting for 63% of all homeless families – a rise of 54% in the last five years.
  • To use Food Banks More than 80% of families with children at food banks were classed as severely food insecure that is gone without eating, sometimes for days at a time. Single parent households are almost twice as likely to use food banks.

The Low Pay Poverty Trap
Nearly seven in ten (68%) single parents are now in work. Single parents have much less time for parenting their children and much less time for training for a better job. Over two thirds of single parents enter the three lowest paid occupations.

SPAN and University of West of England tracked the journey of single parents on job seekers allowance when requirements were first introduced. For those who found work, all entered the lowest paid jobs – whatever their qualifications – some had degrees but ended up in cleaning, childcare, and supermarkets. There follows little social mobility in these jobs. “Jobs that are low paid and insecure, offering only a dead-end and not a stepping stone to a better job, trap people in poverty. Five in every six people in low-paid fail to escape low pay over 10 years. Barriers to increasing pay can be even greater for those with family responsibilities. Caring for children can limit the number of hours you can work and the distance you can travel for work.”

Many single parents in in-work poverty are now heavily dependent on food banks, ruining increased self-esteem that a paid job might very well bring. Vicki Hutchinson, a single mother with two daughters is forced to use food banks, after a delay of six to seven months when moved onto Universal Credit. She was still paying off loans long after; “I was getting half of what I was entitled to, and it was not enough to pay all the bills and to feed and clothe my kids. … I think of myself as a failure … You should be able to look after your kids.”

Trapped in Abusive relationships
Single parents are becoming increasingly isolated: supportive social networks have often been critical to leaving abusive relationships but poverty and cuts in women’s services are taking their toll.  The supportive website – – reports that at present the deepest concerns on the site relate to lack of support (68%) and violent/abusive relationships (52%). Many single parents have left abusive, violent relationships, taking control over their own situation, often seeking out refuges. But that too is now changing. 17% of specialist women’s refuges have closed since 2010.

A fifth (20%) of single women with children said they had experienced abuse from a partner in the previous 12 months, compared with 4.9% among women living with other adults and children. Single parents are seven times as likely to have been stalked and three times as likely to have been the victim of sexual abuse by a partner or ex-partner. Women are more likely to go back to an abusive partner if they are living in poverty.

A New Social Contract Needed
The position of single parent mothers in society with regard to choice and independence is a good indication of the level of gender equality with regard to childcare, employment opportunities, income, public services that protect from violence and abuse. The fact that the UK is doing poorly on all these fronts is the reason why one parent families are faring so badly. Women’s equality has been even further downgraded in this Brexit environment. We in the women’s movement need to campaign for a new social contract committed to building a social infrastructure grounded on equality, economic independence, care, and freedom from violence and abuse, enabling women to leave destructive relationships and create a better life for themselves and their children.

Sue Cohen is a member of the Women’s Budget Group Management Committee and Honorary Research Associate at University of Bristol

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