In praise of feckless, scrounging single mothers

Anyone who has raised a child on their own knows it's a tough job. Why is there such a stigma attached to single parenthood?

Single mothers - what are we gonna do with them, eh? They prance around, brazenly raising their children right under our faces, struggling for money and taking up school places with their kids who will just end up dealing drugs in the primary school playground anyway. What a scourge on society these women are, who must have immaculately conceived in a selfish bout of benefit-claiming spite and now stuff their families’ faces with free school meals served on golden platters. And how bad at mathematics they must be, to have surely calculated that having that family was financially worth doing, only to find that their income support barely stretches to the school uniforms. Ha! That’ll learn ‘em!

This sort of stigma might sound outdated, but it’s no longer confined to the fallback chat in the boarding school common room. In our experience, it’s actually accelerated during the recession, big-time. For one thing, the Guardian reported that the biggest losers from the Budget will be single mothers, who face losing their benefits if they don’t work longer hours which are not justified by the skyrocketing price of childcare. Women, part-time workers and parents found their purse strings tightened after changes to the welfare system, and the majority of single mothers tend to tick all of these boxes. Meanwhile, in times of austerity, the phrase “single mother” is often treated as if it were synonymous with “socially irresponsible” - or, if you really want to push the boat out, that charming label “scrounger”.

In the US, prejudice against single motherhood can be even more pronounced. American films often make a nod towards the idea that “single mother” is a polite term for “stripper” or “prostitute”, while national reports into crime statistics are often juxtaposed with statistics on single parent families. This practice is so widely recognised and accepted that the Atlantic posted an article a few days ago claiming that “Single mothers can’t be scapegoated for the murder rate anymore”. The LA Times on Saturday similarly published a piece where the writing journalist spoke about the reaction to an article she wrote crediting single mothers with helping to re-elect Obama. Apparently, a lot of people had seen that as “tacit encouragement of one parent homes over two”, which she felt that she had to explicitly clarify was not the case or her agenda. This journalist had raised her children as a single parent following the death of her husband, referring to herself as a “single mother” along the way. One commenter, however, informed her that widowed or divorced women “don’t count” as single mothers, because “single mother” is a label exclusively reserved for shaming people who had dared to procreate out of wedlock. The implication was that she should differentiate herself from these vile harridans who can’t even officiate themselves under God before popping out a sprog, and that she should go about this differentiation by declaring herself a “widowed mother”, whether she wanted to regularly reveal personal details about her life to strangers or not. 

Anyone who has singlehandedly raised children knows that it is far from a walk in the park. We’ve never attempted to do it ourselves, but we were both raised by strong, hardworking, inspirational single mothers. And there are still an astonishing amount of people we have come across - young and old - who have voiced their opinion that those like our mothers have single-(parent)-handedly destroyed the nation and ripped the taxable wages right out of their hands. Like so many conservative arguments, they centre around the idea that a mere "lifestyle choice" is to blame for self-imposed hardship, despite the fact that if you could actually and genuinely choose your lifestyle, most people would go for the “champagne breakfasts and high society” one rather than the “Primark t-shirt covered in baby sick at the 5am feed” one. It’s a nice little argument to deny people support and rights, but it doesn’t really bear out that someone might choose a damp, cramped flat in Nottingham over a palace in Chelsea because they just love the radical lifestyle allowed by walls that grow mushrooms.

Now, it hasn’t slipped our attention that single dads exist, and that in most articles about single parenthood, they hardly ever get a look in. This is partly because they comprise a tiny percentage of single parents, which is, of course, no reason to ignore them. Most single fathers - like most single mothers - are dedicated, conscientious people who try to do right by their children in the face of crippling social discrimination. And when single dads disappear from the equation, it can be as much an indicator of misogyny as it is denial that the fathers themselves exist. In 2011, the Daily Mail headlined findings that Britain has a lower number of coupled families than our Euro-counterparts with “Single mother Britain: UK has most lone parents of any major European nation”. The implication was, of course, that no single fathers exist, and that women doing things independently are once again ruining things for everyone. Right then.

When fathers do get a media mention, it tends to have a less judgmental slant (of course, custody issues in the courtroom are another matter entirely and do often favour mothers, for a myriad of equally unfair reasons.) There is a particular kind of fury reserved for the mothers, and usually an implicit sympathy for the fathers, as if by sticking around in the first place, these dads must be a truly decent bunch and a great example of manhood. Not so for the mother majority, who are all too often left to shoulder the burden of national murder rates and snide remarks about sex workers alone. In our time at the helm of the Vagenda, we’ve also experienced some (admittedly crackpot, but disturbingly regular) assurances that “men nowadays” are suffering psychologically (read: becoming “feminine”, submissive, or even - gasp - gay) because of a prevalence of single mothers. One even went so far as to say that if a man was raised by a single mother, he would make an “unsuitable husband” in the future. Could it be that these unmarried mums are part of the Gay Agenda too? They aren’t living in a nuclear family with a white picket fence, so we’ll go with “probably”.

Shoehorned into the “natural primary caregiver” role, women often find themselves chastised for doing things on their own. Those who believe that single parent families are bringing down the morals of the nation usually also believe that “it’s not natural” is a great line of argument for almost anything, and that the ladies are more suited to preparing a hot dinner for their husbands coming in. Additionally, of course, those quickest to judge single mothers are ordinarily also anti-abortion, which is a beautiful right wing paradox in itself. But as it turns out, keeping the caricature in our head of Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard pushing six discount pushchairs around the council estate as she swigs a cider isn’t exactly contributing to cultural progression. And if you really want to better society, it might be a whole lot more productive to change your own opinions than it is to rail against the so-called “lifestyles” of others.

Single motherhood isn't a "lifestyle choice". Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Show Hide image

Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.