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27 May 2014updated 05 Oct 2023 8:54am

Down the rabbit hole: single parenthood in austerity Britain

The government’s punitive measures have made it harder to get out of poverty. And austerity is making it worse.

By Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi

Angela has lost track of time. It is nearly three ‘o’ clock. She picks up the supermarket bag full of loose papers; newspaper clippings, think tank reports, personal reflections, and stuffs it into her rucksack. Before leaving the salon she thanks the gathered women and promises action. Pulling her coat hood over her head, she dashes out into lashing rain and half sprints across the city.

The salon meetings were a revelation. Ever since falling down the rabbit-hole Angela struggled to distinguish personal anguish from shock at the state’s inability to support her position as a single parent. But she had a hunch that something systematic was wrong and listening to the women at the salon gave her confidence.

When Angela became pregnant and the relationship with her son’s dad ended, she believed she would manage. Others had, so would she. Up to that point Angela had worked for 15 years as finance director for a small graphic design firm she’d helped set up. It was a secure life; she had glided from a loving, happy childhood to university and on to a well-paid career.

Then, at the age of 42, that world vanished. Angela compares the process of becoming a single mother to Alice tumbling down the rabbit-hole into a new, fantastical world.

When politicians make ‘landmark’ speeches about reforming society, the figure of the single parent is often evoked as emblematic of wider societal fractures. Before he became Prime Minister, in a speech in 2008, David Cameron said:

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I spent some time recently sitting with a benefit officer in a Job Centre plus. In came a young couple. She was pregnant. He was the dad. They were out of work and trying to get somewhere to live. The benefit officer didn’t really have much choice but to explain that they would be better off if she lived on her own. What on earth are we doing with a system like that? With the money we save by ending the something for nothing welfare culture we will say to that couple in that benefit office: Stay together, bring up your kid, build your family, we’re on your side and we will end that couple penalty.”

In government, the Prime Minister is true to his word. The spending cuts have fallen hard on single parent families, who are most reliant on state support and services. Single parents with a youngest child aged three or four will have to undertake mandatory “work related activity”, under new rules introduced last month. These parents, currently in receipt of income support, must comply with tasks set by the jobcentre or face a minimum 20 per cent cut in their benefit.

The flagship policy limiting the amount of benefits a household can receive has so far had the biggest impact on single parent families. The benefit cap was piloted in April 2013 in Bromley, Croydon, Enfield and Haringey. Of the households affected 74 per cent were single parent families with dependent children. As of July 2013 across the four boroughs 1,962 single parents were hit, compared to 606 coupled families, 64 single people and seven couples with no children.

The policy’s goal is to move people into work with support from local jobcentres. But for Angela the disconnection between the reality of parenting alone earning little or nothing, and the government’s vision is too great. The persistent belief that poverty in itself must be fixed or punished without understanding the cause bothers her. “Once you become poor, once you become their problem, then you stop being yourself. You stop having the right to determine your own future.”

But Angela believes the entire experience of becoming a single parent and balancing multiple disadvantage, means she, not the government, is best placed to get “our family up and running a lot quicker”. If anything, the government’s punitive measures have made it harder to get out of poverty. And austerity is making it worse.

That is why she dashes about Southampton in the rain, organising single parent meetings wherever she can; whether in a tiny afro-hairdressing salon or in accommodating coffee shops.

“It has taken me 10 years to get myself back on to a path that is a good path for our family. If I walk away from this and my life story improves, that is not good enough for me. Something should have been learned from my experience.”


Angela was still in hospital after giving birth when she was sacked by the small company she worked for.

She panicked, but, confident of her rights, she went to her union. After negotiation, she was allowed to keep her job with some maternity leave, and, a year later, returned to work part-time, sending her son to nursery school.

Around this time Angela’s widowed mother was diagnosed with leukaemia. Angela tried to spend as much time as she could with her dying mother on one side of Southampton and with her baby son on the other. “When mum was dying, lurching between her death-bed and trying to find people to look after him, I felt I wasn’t there for her or him. I could never spend enough time with her.  It was a very cruel time.”

Amid all this, it was becoming difficult to work a full 16 hours each week, which meant she was ineligible for working tax credits. Her son’s nursery fees ate up her life savings till there was nothing left.

Angela kept her job until her son was about two and half. “I stopped the job to spend time with my mum before she died. Then everything just hit me. I probably spent a year or maybe longer unemployed. I just had no energy left.” She and her son moved into a council flat on the eleventh floor of a tower block, about a mile from the city centre. Government rules at the time (this has since changed) meant that as a lone parent, Angela was also eligible for income support of £72.40 a week until her son turned seven.

It took the relevant government departments some time to process the change in Angela’s circumstances. Once they had, one department decided they’d overpaid her £1,000 in housing benefit. She learned to dread brown envelopes. Each letter promised court action and bailiffs if she failed to pay the money.

Recalling that time, Angela begins to cry. “What the situation taught me was that I am totally on my own, that these people, who are all quite reasonable, doing their reasonable jobs, can actually take my life to pieces in a really short period of time.”

Still, she was “bloody minded” and sought out free advice from the Citizens Advice Bureau, and on finding out the government was wrong, challenged them. She won on appeal and received another brown letter, this one saying she no longer owed them money. “They should have said sorry,” she says quietly.

Angela was always afraid. This episode taught her one mistake could wreak havoc. It happened again when her son’s dad stopped paying child maintenance. When he was paying, she received a reduced level of income support, so when the child maintenance stopped, she went to the jobcentre to ask for help.

They said they couldn’t provide support that day. This left Angela without money for food. She’d spent her monthly income on utility bills and had planned to use the maintenance to buy food.

Next she turned to Sure Start, who were unable to help sort out her benefits, but a member of staff gave her £10 and a food bank voucher. “I cried and cried. I found it really hard. I didn’t expect to be taking charity that way in my life. I thought I would be giving more.

“It was a really long walk and I felt thoroughly ashamed going in and people are looking at you and everybody is sizing each other up. You can’t look in the bag. The bag was too heavy and I couldn’t carry them. I thought I can’t complain, they are giving me food. It was a hard day.”

It took some years, but Angela, though still living in poverty (according to official definitions), feels her family is “up and running” again. Council housing and public services kept them together when things were particularly difficult, but only just. Angela worries about future single parents having to manage without these services, and so has spent the last year rallying other single parents where she lives in Southampton. She hopes giving them a voice might kick-start a wider campaign for the government to take note of their experiences.

They have much to lose. Single parents feel the impact of austerity policies more than others. This group, 91 per cent of whom are women, will lose 15 per cent of their incomes, according to analysis by the research think tank Landman Economics of the cumulative impact of the government’s spending decisions and tax changes since May 2010 (and including policies not yet implemented but planned up to April 2015). This compares to 9.7 per cent for couples with children.

“Horrors from my life forgotten seem worse when someone else tells me of the same experience,” Angela says.  “I can’t sit by and let someone else suffer, knowing how it feels. The single parents I know … most are working too hard, not sitting on their butts. I think policy makers are totally out of touch having never had our life experiences. Too often we are seen as the problem, when we are working hard with very little to support our families.”


Government agencies struggle with the concept of a woman raising a child alone, says Angela sipping hot milk in a coffee shop in Southampton city centre.

“One of the things I have felt over the years is that agencies set up to support you actually drain your energy from you. You end up feeling less self-reliant, less independent and less capable of doing stuff. It is toxic. If you are in too much contact with some agencies it is really bad for your self-esteem.”

This ‘dragging down’ over the course of 10 years has made Angela fearful of the state. Its power to casually shatter her life still shocks her. As a result she is constantly alert, ready to fight, always expecting obstacles.  “Everywhere I look there is a battle to be had.”

Outcomes have been mixed. After three years working at a community centre on a zero-hours contract with no holiday or sick pay, that victory came in the form of a permanent part-time position. Other battles have left her drained and bitter. The Child Support Agency lost contact with her son’s father, who owes around £8,000 in maintenance. Meanwhile, though her income of £500 a month is topped up with housing benefit and working tax credit, the family’s income is still less than 60 per cent of the average wage – the current measure of child poverty.

All this misery is avoidable, she says, and that is what makes her angry. She flips through Parenting Alone, a recent report from the Policy Exchange think tank, occasionally guffawing, irked by the language used – ‘dead weight’, ‘burden’, ‘inactive’. “They [single parents] are the least inactive people I have ever encountered in my life.”

“How many blokes wrote this?” she asks. “There is nothing in there about parenting, nothing from the perspective of anyone parenting alone.” She finds parts of the report interesting, but feels they could have done better. “I suppose my question is about on-the-ground expertise. If you go into any situation and you want to try to deal with it, surely you ask people on the ground what it’s like?”

While Angela talks, her friend Jane looks into her drink, her greying brown bob partially covering her face. Initially she was reluctant to join Angela’s collective, preferring to air her grievances in private, quietly trying to rectify problems when she could. Jane was a professional chef before her son was born, and when he started school, finding the industry difficult to juggle around school hours, she took a job as a shop assistant instead. But when the independent fabric shop went bust in December, the problems began to mount.

Jane has been unemployed for three months, struggling to find a job to fit around taking her 9-year-old son to and from school, and caring for her 82-year-old mother who has had three hip replacements and both knees replaced.

The jobcentre drew up a claimant commitment contract dictating that she look for a job providing at least 20 hours work and be prepared to travel 90 minutes each way to get to work. Jane faces financial sanctions if those conditions aren’t met, but she is unlikely to satisfy them.

“I don’t have a big support network to take my son off me,” she says. She also visits her mother every day and does her shopping. Jane’s last job was 16 hours a week, allowing her to balance these caring responsibilities.

As with Angela, one of the biggest causes of stress for Jane has been a series of brown envelopes from indifferent government departments. “I had a 72-page letter in January that I couldn’t understand. It was full of calculations and dates. I thought it said maybe I owed £30 in council tax. Then the next time my housing benefit came there was money missing from it.” Housing benefit was even less the next month, and when Jane called to find out why, she was told she owed £139 in housing benefit and £39 in council tax. Jane took out the 72-page letter, read it carefully, and still couldn’t figure out why she owed the money.

Eventually she discovered the debt had accrued because of a 19 pence pay increase two years ago. When the national minimum wage went up in 2011 by 8 pence and in 2012 by 11 pence, Jane secured an extra £1.28 a week and £1.76 a week.

At the time, she called an operative at the Department for Work and Pensions to let them know. “She laughed at me. So I assumed that housing benefit would know I had a rise in my national minimum wage. But apparently they didn’t.” When Jane lost her job last year and sent her P45 to the jobcentre, the council realised and changed her housing benefit accordingly, also charging her retrospectively for money she’d received in the last two years.


Word spread about Angela’s efforts to organize single parents and her friend Gabrielle, also a single mother to a 10-year old, agreed to host initial meetings at her salon, on the outskirts of the city centre. The first meeting takes place on a Friday morning, the women drop in and out between school hours.

The salon quickly fills. Women sit in two large barber chairs and on stools, and lean against the lilac walls. The salon is small, taking up just one room. Bright rows of jars and bottles line one wall and two large mirrors fill another.

Gabrielle is at the centre of things. People wave as they hurry by the shop and her phone buzzes constantly. A quietly commanding presence, wearing a fitted mauve skirt suit, her long black braids tied from her face, she coaxes the other women in a lilting voice; “How are you sister?” she asks a young woman who has stopped by to make an appointment.  “We are talking about single mothers, you too now are single, aren’t you?” The woman who started attending the jobcentre after being thrown out by her husband, nods and joins the discussion.

Gabrielle opened the salon three years ago. Her counsellor at the time, tried to persuade her not to, telling her to apply for sickness benefit and seek specialist counselling for post-traumatic stress. Gabrielle, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, refused.

At the time, she was unemployed and signing on for Jobseekers Allowance. Before that, when her son was a toddler, she worked 20 hours a week and studied accounting at university. But it was too expensive and difficult to balance. “It was a crazy life. At a young age, you feel like a grandmother.

“One day I was just passing the shop. I called to find out how much the rent was. They asked for a deposit for two months.” She borrowed from friends, and soon opened her salon, which specializes in styling Afro hair. She is the only member of staff and earns enough to keep her ticking over. “What we can say is that we don’t have much, but we are happy with what we have,” Gabrielle says. “We have healthy children. That is all I can say. There is a lot in between, struggles, all those things.” The other women are less sanguine.

It is the first time many have discussed the politics of their lives together and a familiar pattern of frustration emerges. “We have a government that doesn’t understand our situation, doesn’t understand our territory, hasn’t lived our experience,” says Angela.

“Because they don’t care,” says a petite woman with pale brown skin and dark, tired eyes. When Sialou first went to the jobcentre, on switching from income support to JSA, she was studying two days a week for a GCSE in English and an access course to maths and study skills.

A jobcentre advisor told her to quit, so that she could spend the whole week searching for work. “I cried. I couldn’t do it,” she says. “I hated the system. I never saw what they were doing for me. Every time I went to the jobcentre, it was always threats. No help to move up.

“I think the jobcentre people are not really thinking for themselves. Or they want to help you, but they can’t because of the rules. I don’t know. It’s weird.”

Sialou refused to quit, completed her courses and eventually found shift work with an agency as a carer for children with disabilities. She is a “bank” member of staff, which means she can choose when she wants to work and must be available to work when the agency calls. “If they call it is a big battle. You know you are free, but you are not actually free. My son will finish school soon – I need someone to pick him up, I need someone to stay with him. You have to know where to put the child first before you can say yes.” But say no too often and “you lose the job”.

Sialou is also studying for a degree in biological sciences. “My plan is study medicine when I finish. But I don’t know how I will do that,” she laughs.

The biggest obstacles are childcare and low earnings. If she uses a child minder it can cost more than she is paid for one shift. Often, she has no choice. When she has a 9am class, for example, to arrive on time she needs to leave her son with a child minder until the school day begins.

The juggling is difficult, and Sialou is never quite sure if she is getting the balance right. “I need a relationship with my son, I am the only one he has. I have to give him time.” He complains when she works weekends, but “he understands in his own way. I am blessed. He is really easy going.”

The other women all identify with Sialou’s predicament. They too are torn between the difficulty of working enough hours in a minimum wage job to cover living costs and childcare, and finding time to parent their children.

Rising childcare costs in the UK are well documented. A 2011 OECD report found that the cost of childcare as a percentage of the average family wage was second highest for any OECD country (26.6 per cent of average family incomes spent on childcare compared to the OECD average of 11.8 per cent).  A recent survey by a British childcare charity reported a 27 per cent increase in childcare costs since 2009. The Family and Childcare Trust’s 2014 childcare survey also calculated the average cost of after school clubs as £48.19 a week or £1,830 a year.

The government has responded with some subsidies towards the costs of childcare, but campaigners are concerned this only benefits mid-to-high earners leaving poorer parents like Sialou struggling. And many earn too little to benefit from the government’s other major measure to help low earners, the increase in personal tax allowance. Of the 21 million people earning too little to benefit, 63 per cent are women.

While the women talk, Naseem enters the salon. She falls into a chair by the window and holds her reddish brown curls in her hands. Gabrielle walks over, rubbing her back and whispering to her.

Naseem is just back from the jobcentre, where she went to sign on and find out when her Jobseeker’s Allowance would resume. The jobcentre sanctioned her in January after a mix up with her appointments. “I went to the appointment, but it was the wrong office. I tried to explain and explain and explain. I went to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. They spoke to them.” In the meantime, her bills are piling up and she owes tax on the JSA she received for the last time she was unemployed.

Trying to explain all this at the jobcentre, Naseem’s head began to hurt and she grew breathless, then she fainted. “I always get panic attacks”, she says, “but recently they have gotten worse.”

Naseem is in her fifties, but looks much younger. She has four children, the youngest has just turned 17. Originally from Kenya, she had a miserable childhood; her mother ran away when she was a baby and her father was an alcoholic, so she lived with her grandmother, aunties and uncles, cooking and cleaning for them until they married her off to an older man when she was 14. She was never allowed to attend school and still has scars from all the beatings.

What bothers her most is her lack of education; she can barely read and write, and whenever she is confronted with official paperwork, she panics. In the past, she has worked in shops and as a carer, looking after the elderly. Her last job interview was as a sales assistant for the discount clothes shop T.K Max, a job she really wanted. “We had an induction for two and half hours. There were 13 people at the table. You had to write and read in front of people. The job I wanted was tidying clothes and running around, I wasn’t looking for an office job. I panicked.”

Naseem didn’t get that job, but a week later she found out Primark were looking for staff. She had already been to the store four or five times to ask about positions, and they always told her to look online. She laughs saying, “I see those grumpy cashiers in there, and I know I can do that job better, and smile all day.”

She filled out the form on a computer at the jobcentre, and asked an advisor to help. “I said, ‘please can you help, there is a job starting on the 7th of this month. I need that job.’ We both tried to fill the form. He couldn’t.” After a while, the advisor gave up and told her to go back to Primark and tell them something wasn’t right with the online form. She went. They told her the online application was fine. If she wanted the job, she would have to fill out the form online.


The lack of support for Naseem in her search for employment is something recognised by all of the mothers at the salon, and by single parents in other parts of the country.

Rebecca, a 29-year-old living in Lancaster, wanted a career, not the short term “tick box” jobs offered at the jobcentre.  While raising her baby daughter she began a degree in psychotherapy and counselling. She had two years left when the jobcentre called her in to move from income support to JSA following her daughter’s 5th birthday.

“I was at university one day a week. I had to look for work from Monday to Friday. Because I was at university on Monday that interrupted the flow. I said, ‘well why can’t I look for work Tuesday to Saturday?’”

The answer was no. Her advisors also refused to look at her CV.  Instead, she was told to take a job, any job, “or my benefits would stop”. This mantra terrified Rebecca; the prospect of her daughter hungry or homeless haunted her. “I went into the jobcentre with hope and aspirations and a future. I left without any of that,” she says. “Because they were asking me to quit my degree actually all I felt was, like they were putting me in my place. I don’t deserve to better myself. I should know my place and stay in it.”

One of the biggest problems for lone parents on benefits attending work interviews is increased conditionality. A jobcentre advisor might draw up a claimant agreement that, for example, requires them to work weekends or nights. Often the power imbalance is such that parents feel they must sign the agreement or face losing benefits. If they then refuse to take the job offering weekend shifts because of the difficulty of finding childcare out of school hours, they are sanctioned. In such situations a sanction – the withdrawal of benefits – can last four weeks and may trigger the removal of other benefits, eventually leading to destitution.

Gingerbread, a charity for single parents, hears such stories daily. A parent of a six-month-old baby was told that missing a work-focused interview because her child was ill was “not an adequate reason and her benefits would stop if it happened again”.

Philippa Newis, the charity’s policy officer, says, “You have got a job-seeking regime that was essentially designed for single people who don’t have any dependents, who can eventually look for full time work, are able to start work straight away, and don’t have any particular restrictions on their time.”

The Department for Work and pensions’ own statistics show that 64 per cent of sanctions on single parents in receipt of JSA are overturned at appeal, compared to an average 28 per cent for other claimants. It could be that overworked jobcentre advisors are unaware of the need to provide flexible conditions for single parents.

“We know that single parents are being incorrectly sanctioned,” says Philippa. “Though it is not always possible from the data published to understand why, our strong feeling is, because of what we hear through the helpline and the work we do with single parents, that it’s because they were being asked to do things that they should never have been asked to do in the first place.”

Catherine, a jocular lady who has known Angela for 25 years, is enthused about her campaign. “I read a brilliant book by a French feminist recently. One of the things she said … was a great failure of the feminist movement of the 50s and 60s was that we didn’t get childcare sorted out.”

Catherine is a single parent to two children aged 14 and 24, and, having closed a vintage clothes shop she ran for eight years, now works part-time for a social enterprise. “At the moment I might claim benefits again for the first time in 20 years, because that is the consequences of a being a single parent for 20 years,” she says. “This is where I am at 50.”

She adds: “A conversation I have had with lots of single parents is, ‘I made my bed so I have got to lie in it.’ I can logically explain why that is not a correct as a way of thinking. But the sentiment is strong for us.

“Particularly now as we have these choices about contraception. We have these choices about abortion. If we get to the point where we are deciding to go ahead and have this baby, that somehow we just have to suck it up from that point. The world loves that because we don’t bother anybody. We just do it.”

Catherine did “suck it up” and at the time she was financially able to do so. When her son was born she was a high-earning media executive, jetting around the world, once every six weeks in New York. It meant she could buy a house and put her son in childcare from 8am till 6pm. Then her daughter came along and it became harder to balance work and care. “My world just got smaller and smaller and smaller, around this little girl, and little boy who wasn’t well. I became very ill.”

Ten years ago her doctor said she was medically depressed. “Me? I thought everybody felt like this. I thought this was how life is. It is really hard and really horrible, but the kids are alright.” Catherine abandoned her career to look after the children and nurture her own mental health.

The mental strain of raising children alone, against a bureaucratic and often punishing state, is frightening, says Angela. Several of the single mothers at Angela’s salon meetings had been prescribed anti-depressants, and two talked of having suicidal thoughts. After an impassioned tirade about not being able to find a cleaning job, Effie, a mother of five recently split from her children’s father, said: “If you don’t have a strong personality, then at the end of the day you will just go and stand on that bridge and jump.”


Angela says that one of the things that helps single parents is the solidarity of other single parents.

She is buoyed by the E15 mothers, a group of women from Newham in East London fighting for decent social housing. Eagerly following their campaign updates online, she wonders if she could save enough money to travel to London to visit them.

Meanwhile, to her surprise, single mothers in Southampton are keen to be part of whatever fight Angela has planned. A second salon meeting is well attended. “We should protest,” Naseem had suggested.

“In the street. Give fliers away, call women, sit down and talk, we cry together and hug each other. Then we go out there. We want this changed. Every woman should come out.”


What can the government do for single parents looking for work and trying to raise children on low incomes?

Iain Duncan Smith, the Minister for Work and Pensions, told parliament earlier this year: “We are working … to ensure that we get as many people out of poverty as possible. The reforms that we are changing and making to get people back to work … will have a huge impact on those who are in poverty now. People are better off in work.”

The Minister began working on his vision to tackle poverty while in opposition and since 2010 has developed a programme of welfare reform to support it. The goal is to reduce income replacement benefits by increasing conditionality for claimants and using financial sanctions as punishment. It aligns with wider government austerity plans to shrink state spending on social welfare and public services.

Since 2008, changes to the conditions of eligibility for income support, an income replacement benefit for lone parent households, has seen increased numbers of single parents using Jobcentre Plus. Numbers went from around 7-8,000 signing on every month in 2008 to more or less 150,000 each month in 2013.

Numerous studies and reports, from focused surveys by Bristol-based charity Single Parent Action Network to national reports by the think tank Policy Exchange, suggest jobcentres across the country have struggled to cope with the increased numbers, with few providing tailored services for parents often juggling childcare for children as young as five.

Increased conditionality at the jobcentre and a disregard for lone parent flexibilities (such as allowing parents to schedule interviews around school hours or look for jobs that work around term-time) has led to a rising number of single parents receiving financial sanctions. Under plans for a new universal credit, the government has removed the obligation for jobcentre advisors to consider lone parent flexibilities completely.

A failure to help single parents at the jobcentre or provide access to training means often they churn in and out of insecure low-paid work, remaining in poverty. In the UK lone parent families are most likely to live in poverty, according to the government’s own statistics published in the Households Below Average Income report for 2011/12. They are twice as likely as coupled households with children to live in relative poverty. And poverty is persistent even for single parents in work, with 31 per cent of those in part-time jobs living in relative poverty, and 17 per cent of those in full time jobs.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ welfare reforms, a key part of the government’s austerity programme, have also heavily impacted on single parents. They are the largest recipients of housing benefit, a housing subsidy for low-income and out-of-work households. In the areas where the government’s proposed cap has been piloted, single parent households with dependent children make up the largest group affected.

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Other pressure has come from the withdrawal of public services such as Sure Start children’s centres, maternity grants and vouchers for food and milk, the closure of school breakfast clubs, the freeze on child benefits, among other changes. Such services provide crutches already available to families with two parents to share childcare and two incomes (or at least one full-time income) to cover the cost of raising children.

So what can the government do for single parents? To start with, Angela says, they must listen.

This article first appeared on an online human rights magazine, as part of its austerity and prosperity edition