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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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