Government policy is forcing single parents into poverty

Loneliness, isolation and poverty are now the fate of many single parents in this country. Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi finds out why so many of them feel like they're being punished "like naughty children".

Liza was 28, working in a bookshop, and studying for a second degree when she became pregnant. “We moved in together because we thought we ought to. That lasted for a year after she was born.” Liza and her partner made a plan for their daughter’s arrival; he would help with childcare so she could return to work. But the plan unravelled when he decided to embark on a career change during her pregnancy. “So he quit his job and that was very stressful. We had no income really.

“I felt like I wasn’t getting any support from him, and I wasn’t getting any support from anyone else because they all thought he should be supporting me. So I left in order to get some support.” Liza makes a wry face and laughs. She is nearly always laughing; her dry humour usually directed at herself.

Mother and baby survived on income support and tax credits, two “big” overdrafts from her student days and some child support from her daughter’s dad. “That put a strain on our relationship. He didn’t appreciate them taking money straight out of his wages.” But the bigger strain was on Liza, who, driven by loneliness and a desire to escape the constant worry, scoured her local community, a small town outside Bristol, for friendship. “I had gone from being a free spirit to a lonely isolated single parent.”

When Liza says ‘single parent’, her face changes and the heaviness of the stigma darkens her features. But in her eyes is a sharp defiance. Too often lone parents are caricatured in the press and by politicians, particularly if they are women, and these subtle prejudices seep into the lives of single parents as they battle for the services they need to do the difficult job of raising children alone. Contrast the government’s eagerness to reward married couples to the rhetoric used when discussing social security for single parents. Then look at the government’s latest childcare announcement, designed to reduce childcare costs through the tax system. This will subsidise childcare for middle to high earners and do little for those parents working below the tax threshold in part-time, low paid employment. And it is the dearth of affordable childcare that forces lone mothers into these jobs.

Political rhetoric and featherweight policy solutions also disguise the fact that single parents areamong the biggest losers of the recession. New research from the Women's Budget Group on the cumulative impact on families of tax and spending measures introduced since 2010 (and including the impact of proposed policies up to 2015/16 ) found that single parents will lose 15.1 per cent of their disposable income to austerity policies. This is compared to couples with no children who lose 4.1 per cent and couples with children who lose 9.7 per cent. The break down of this income loss shows the biggest source of the loss is from tax and spending changes, cuts to further and higher education training, and housing. Withdrawing social security and public services that single parents need to balance raising children and finding decent work will simply prolong their unemployment or force them into a poverty wage. That is exactly what happened to Liza.

Initially, Liza managed, but was relieved when came across the Single Parent Action Network (her daughter Ruth was nearly three by this time). SPAN is a charity based in Bristol that provides a wide range of support to one parent families. “I mainly went because they had a free creche and . . . just to get a break. The first thing I did was fabric painting. It was the first time I had had any time away from Ruth. It was two hours, but it was amazing. Every parent should be able to do that.” Liza worked her way through all of SPAN’s skills courses, but kept going back to volunteer, teach classes, and soon began helping with SPAN’s research and policy work.

The report Liza helped compile was an ambitious project charting the journeys of 50 single parents over three years as they moved from income support to Jobseeker’s Allowance. The project results forced Liza to question the support she could hope to receive when she eventually resumed looking for work once Ruth started full time schooling.

“I remember one particular lady who had been a midwife or a nurse. She just needed a bit more training to get back into it. She was told, ‘You can’t do that because you won’t be looking for work’. There is no long term thinking. A lot of people went into jobs that either didn’t financially work or the childcare didn’t really work. They ended up back on benefits.”

There were success stories, but overall there was a sense that these parents were being punished “like naughty children”. Liza was struck by the overwhelming sense of fear and constant worry. The subtle prejudice against single mothers, which had come from politicians and the media, had indeed crept into the minds of the agencies tasked with helping this group. If the agencies themselves decide that single parents are undeserving, then you have a situation where ordinary parents are having to fight individual battles to prove otherwise, and argue for their share of state support.

“It was the idea that you had to justify your existence.” Liza says, “and your right to have any financial support. That came across in the interviews, ‘I had to justify why I deserved to have the money’. Whereas before it had been you deserve this because you are doing this really hard job on your own.”

Liza shudders. “I thought, that just won’t be good for my mental health, to have to go every two weeks, justify my existence, prove that I am looking for work that isn’t there.” She laughs again, holding her head in her hands. “It was a bit of cop out. I would have been ideally placed to go into the jobcentre and challenge them. But knowing your rights is not enough. They have got all the power. It felt like a lose-lose situation that I just didn’t want to get into. I would rather have any job than have to go through what these people have had to go through and be treated like that.”

As Ruth’s fifth birthday approached Liza was haunted by the voices of the women she had interviewed. She waited anxiously for the letter from the Department for Work and Pensions telling her that she too would have to move from income support and attend JobCentre Plus. Instead, she gave up on the fruitless applications for jobs that matched her ability and interests, and eventually she took a job caring for a lady who recently had a stroke. “I didn’t have any work experience, but my mum was disabled and I lived with my nan for a long time.

“It didn’t really feel like a decision. I thought, this is going to be really difficult, because my nan had dementia. And it was very similar working with someone who had a stroke who had memory loss. I did think, ‘Can I do this again?’”

“It is not skilled, but I have just gone down that road ever since. I think if you went back and said to Liza who left university, who thought ‘Right, I am just going to work at Waterstones for a bit, then I am going to take on the world’, that she was going to end up doing caring work . . . she would be like, no, no, no, no.”

When we met in April Ruth had turned seven and Liza was working as a carer for an elderly lady with Parkinson’s. This paid £70 a week and provided little security, no paid holidays or sick leave. Liza and Ruth’s income is topped up by £60 in tax credits each month, plus around £200 a month from Ruth’s dad. “I just about break even, although having said that I just got a letter saying water bill is going to come out. So I’m having a bad month.” She smiles, lamenting her inability to make a little money do the impossible. “Iain Duncan Smith says you can live on £59 a week, I am sure you can. But when you are looking after a small child and worrying about all the other things you have to worry about it, it is harder.”

As the state continues to draw back support, single parents are increasingly at a loss. Where Liza lives, after school clubs and holiday schemes are unaffordable at around £20 a day. In the face of desperate odds, though, Liza is still upbeat. “I do worry. I just have to stop myself. I like to think I keep it from her but I suspect she picks up on it when I am anxious. I do get anxious, generally about the future.

“I have to believe that somehow, at some point, it is going to work out. Even if it is not for another 10 years, even if it is not till she’s at Uni and I can study, and maybe get a better job then. I have to keep thinking that this isn’t forever, that is how I stay positive. I think that is true for most people in that situation.”

For many single parents, working is essential, but childcare is unaffordable. Photo: Getty

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi reports and writes on immigration, women and economics, housing, legal aid, and mental health. Read her latest work here. Her blog rebeccaomonira.com was shortlisted for the 2012 Orwell Prize. She tweets @Rebecca_Omonira.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.