Where next for back-to-work support?

Into work support from the work programme and job centre is not delivering for single parents, or for the tax payer.

If there’s one mantra that underpins much of the government’s social policy reforms, it’s that work is the answer. Whether it’s benefit cuts, radical welfare reform, troubled families, or child poverty–the end game is principally based on getting people into (or back to) work.

Indeed, getting into stable work that pays a decent wage is single parents’ best route out of poverty for their families. Yet there are still 1.16 million children growing up in single parent families where no-one works.

It’s an issue that successive governments have failed to resolve–and, despite the promises of a new approach to employment support, our research published today shows that this government is no closer to making this a reality.

Turning rhetoric into reality

The coalition government has made clear commitments to delivering a more personalised approach to employment support. This includes the promise to give “more responsibility to Jobcentre Plus advisers to assess claimants’ individual needs and to offer the support they think most appropriate”, as well as the Work Programme’s aim of “creating a structure that treats people as individuals and allows providers greater freedom to tailor the right support to the individual needs of each claimant”.

But in practice, our research shows that this rhetoric is firmly at odds with many single parents’ experiences, despite all the evidence showing that the best way to get single parents into work is to offered tailored, personalised support.

Where does this leave single parents? Their starting point is already behind that of other groups—while 59 per cent of single parents are in work, that’s still significantly behind the proportion of mothers from couple families: 71 per cent. More worryingly, despite the billions being invested in the new Work Programme by the government, its first year results—at 3.5 per cent of claimants achieving job outcomes—were already well below government minimum performance targets. And single parents were doing worse still—in fact around a third worse than other claimants. Just 2.5 per cent of single parents achieved job outcomes on the Work Programme. Drill down to young single parents and the figure gets even worse: just 2 per cent achieved job outcomes.

Where there’s a will—there must be a way

Single parents are highly motivated to work. They are the sole breadwinners for their family. They want to be role models, and they want and need to provide for their children.

But they face very specific and significant barriers to work: the cost and availability of childcare, a shortage of family friendly jobs and being able, once childcare and travel are factored in, to make work pay for their family.

Many of the single parents we speak to say that they will take almost any job, as long as they can balance it with caring for their child. Others have clear aspirations to train and skill up in a particular sector, or start on a path that takes them to a career rather than just a job.

We know it’s not lack of motivation that’s holding single parents back. They are a group with huge potential but they are still being failed by government back to work schemes that offer them a one-size-fits-all approach which barely meets the lowest common denominator of need.

Duplication

Even if the Jobcentre can only achieve delivery of a more of a basic and generic approach, the Work Programme should be the start of more intensive, targeted support that helps those a bit further away from work—those who have been long-term unemployed, or those who have requested a bit of extra help. As one of the single parents we spoke to said:

It lifts your spirits a little bit thinking maybe this is different, maybe this is something that is more about me, because that’s how they sell it to you—it’s more personalised. But actually your experience isn’t that different.

Instead single parents found it was groundhog-day. They again were offered basic courses ill-matched with their experience and met with advisers who weren’t trained to understand or meet their needs.

Some of our interviewees even felt sorry for their Work Programme advisers:

The atmosphere was awful. While the advisers weren’t unpleasant, there was such a high turnover of staff that they really struggled.

Again, single parents were recognised for their strong motivation to work. But this didn’t always work in their favour: in fact we found evidence that those closest to work were being ‘parked’—seemingly because their advisers thought they would find work on their own.

Of the single parents on the Work Programme who did find work, only one of our interviewees attributed it to the support they had received. However, all of those who stay in work for six months will result in a pay-out for providers. Is this really value for money for the tax payer?

What next?

There must be an urgent, renewed focus on single parents from Jobcentre Plus and Work Programme providers. We want the government to set a clear and ambitious target for single parent employment and an action plan to achieve it.

The government must undertake a rapid review to draw out the key differences between Jobcentre Plus and Work Programme provision, map out a seamless referral process between the two, and remove duplication in the services provided.

Advisers need greater training and direction to ensure that across both the Jobcentre Plus and Work Programme advisers are informing single parents about their rights to balance job seeking with their childcare responsibilities. Advisers should also be helping single parents to access consistent and reliable support for childcare costs when preparing for work.

And we want to see Jobcentre Plus and Work Programme providers carrying out assessments of single parents’ need for skills training, and investing in vocational skills—not just basic skills and employability.

In short, there has to be an overhaul of both programmes to ensure that they are making an impact, are helping single parents into sustained work and are delivering on the government’s promises. Supporting single parents into work can be—and should be—the answer.

Find out more about Gingerbread’s three-year campaign to Make it work for single parents.

A young single mother and her child living on a housing estate in Middlesbrough, circa 1984. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Davey is the Director of Policy, Advice and Communications at Gingerbread.

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Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.