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Why does the welfare state target single parents with young children for punishment?

Two-thirds of those affected by the benefit cap are single parent households. 

New data shows the number of babies and toddlers affected by the government’s benefit cap is rising, despite a High Court ruling that the policy is unlawful. Despite this, the government’s response remains the same.

Overall, almost two-thirds of households that have been capped to date are single parent households, one in five of them with children aged under two. In response to the rising numbers, the government says that “behind these figures are thousands of people who are now better off in work and enjoying the benefits of a regular wage.”

But this bears no resemblance to situations that parents we work with at Gingerbread find themselves in. Today’s figures highlight that seven out of 10 families currently capped are single parent families, the vast majority with pre-school aged children. It is these families who are shouldering the brunt of the benefit cap, a policy that limits the amount of financial support that families out of work can receive from the Government.

Each family that rings Gingerbread’s helpline for support is unique; from parents fleeing domestic abuse, to those recently bereaved; separating parents and those who have lost their job often through no fault of their own. But the distress, financial and emotional hardship that they face as a result of the cap is common. For all these families, the triple whammy of rising cost of living, unaffordable childcare and a lack of flexible work means they will struggle to balance work and caring for their children.

It doesn’t need to be this way; the government has a choice.

Last month, the government appealed a High Court decision that deemed this policy to discriminate against single parents with children aged under  two. The verdict was unambiguous. Mr Justice Collins, the High Court judge ruled that “the cap is capable of real damage to individuals such as the claimants. They are not workshy but find it, because of the care difficulties, impossible to comply with the work requirement. Most lone parents with children under two are not the sort of households the cap was intended to cover.”

It’s as though the government appealed by default, showing a complete disregard for the situation that many of these families find themselves in. Due to the appeal, the verdict can be ignored and the benefit cap policy remains the same. This is likely to mean more families facing the harsh cap.

Rather than tackle the underlying reasons for high benefit payments, such as high cost of rents, unaffordable childcare, and insecure work, the government has chosen to make vulnerable families pay. The benefit cap places these families at risk of poverty. Already, nearly half (47 per cent) of children in single parent families are living in poverty – a figure that is forecast to sharply rise.

Single parents want to work and do work. Single parent employment rates are at a record high; but it shouldn’t be work at all costs, nor should people be forced into work when they can’t afford the childcare they need.

Mr Justice Collins was damning in his ruling on the benefit cap. He concluded that “real misery is being caused to no good purpose.” The new data today shows that the government is choosing to inflict this misery on yet more families.

Dalia Ben-Galim is director of policy at Gingerbread. She tweets @dalia_bengalim. Single parents concerned about the benefit cap can call the free Gingerbread helpline (0808 802 0925) or visit our dedicated page.

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Universal Credit takes £3,700 from single working parents - it's time to call a halt

The shadow work and pensions secretary on the latest analysis of a controversial benefit. 

Labour is calling for the roll out of Universal Credit (UC) to be halted as new data shows that while wages are failing to keep up with inflation, cuts to in-work social security support have meant most net incomes have flat-lined in real terms and in some cases worsened, with women and people from ethnic minority communities most likely to be worst affected.

Analysis I commissioned from the House of Commons Library shows that real wages are stagnating and in-work support is contracting for both private and public sector workers. 

Private sector workers like Kellie, a cleaner at Manchester airport, who is married and has a four year old daughter. She told me how by going back to work after the birth of her daughter resulted in her losing in-work tax credits, which made her day-to-day living costs even more difficult to handle. 

Her child tax credits fail to even cover food or pack lunches for her daughter and as a result she has to survive on a very tight weekly budget just to ensure her daughter can eat properly. 

This is the everyday reality for too many people in communities across the UK. People like Kellie who have to make difficult and stressful choices that are having lasting implications on the whole family. 

Eventually Kellie will be transferred onto UC. She told me how she is dreading the transition onto UC, as she is barely managing to get by on tax credits. The stories she hears about having to wait up to 10 weeks before you receive payment and the failure of payments to match tax credits are causing her real concern.

UC is meant to streamline social security support,  and bring together payments for several benefits including tax credits and housing benefit. But it has been plagued by problems in the areas it has been trialled, not least because of the fact claimants must wait six weeks before the first payment. An increased use of food banks has been observed, along with debt, rent arrears, and even homelessness.

The latest evidence came from Citizens Advice in July. The charity surveyed 800 people who sought help with universal credit in pilot areas, and found that 39 per cent were waiting more than six weeks to receive their first payment and 57 per cent were having to borrow money to get by during that time.

Our analysis confirms Universal Credit is just not fit for purpose. It looks at different types of households and income groups, all working full time. It shows single parents with dependent children are hit particularly hard, receiving up to £3,100 a year less than they received with tax credits - a massive hit on any family budget.

A single teacher with two children working full time, for example, who is a new claimant to UC will, in real terms, be around £3,700 a year worse off in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12.

Or take a single parent of two who is working in the NHS on full-time average earnings for the public sector, and is a new tax credit claimant. They will be more than £2,000 a year worse off in real-terms in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12. 

Equality analysis published in response to a Freedom of Information request also revealed that predicted cuts to Universal Credit work allowances introduced in 2016 would fall most heavily on women and ethnic minorities. And yet the government still went ahead with them.

It is shocking that most people on low and middle incomes are no better off than they were five years ago, and in some cases they are worse off. The government’s cuts to in-work support of both tax credits and Universal Credit are having a dramatic, long lasting effect on people’s lives, on top of stagnating wages and rising prices. 

It’s no wonder we are seeing record levels of in-work poverty. This now stands at a shocking 7.4 million people.

Our analyses make clear that the government’s abject failure on living standards will get dramatically worse if UC is rolled out in its current form.

This exactly why I am calling for the roll out to be stopped while urgent reform and redesign of UC is undertaken. In its current form UC is not fit for purpose. We need to ensure that work always pays and that hardworking families are properly supported. 

Labour will transform and redesign UC, ending six-week delays in payment, and creating a fair society for the many, not the few. 

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.