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.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

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