In 2008 New Labour began to take away unemployed single parents’ entitlement to Income Support (IS) when their youngest child reached a certain age — and the “qualifying age” was gradually reduced.
These parents were switched to Job Seekers Allowance and told to find work.
The Tories completed the erosion of any “special status” for single parents with the Welfare Reform Act — IS entitlement now stops when the youngest children are 5 or 6.
A recent report by Gingerbread, interviewing many single parents, highlights the huge difficulties these changes have brought into the lives of single parents.
“Flexible working” is an absolute must for most parents but particularly so for single parents — the vast majority of whom are women — and even more so for parents of children as young as five or six as children of that age are not at all independent.
But “flexible work” is synonymous with poor pay, possibly inadequate hours (fewer than 16 hours a week) and insecurity. Not surprisingly, a high proportion (22%) of single parents who do manage to get work (not a given in the current economic climate) leave within a very short space of time.
The proportion of “churn” is very high for single parents for many reasons: it is more difficult to make childcare arrangements work if you are on your own; it is more difficult to cope with the “squeeze” of work and being a parent; and employers’ belief that “flexible working” is “flexible” for them alone is a disaster if, in the absence of a strong trade union on your side, you also have no partner or family to back you up.
From the interviews:
“When I worked 20 hours and my son was in hospital, I asked to go in different days to work my hours and they said no.”
“According to the job centre there is a breakfast club at a local school but there isn’t, because my children can’t walk the mile and a half unsupervised between two schools if I am at work. I haven’t got a Tardis, I’d love one but I don’t.”
“I’ve looked into local child minders and costings, but there is nobody local. There is a nursery-cum-after school club but it is so expensive. And there’s no bus link.”
The benefit system does still allow for “flexibilities” for single parents, e.g., they can restrict their job search to certain jobs. But benefit advisers often withhold that information.
While unskilled, low paid, part-time jobs have expanded over recent years, none of these jobs, meet the real needs of any workers. Nonetheless, under pressure to find work, single parents take up these jobs. Increasing competition for these jobs, and when many more people are taking up part-time work (even when they want full-time work), is making it much tougher for single parents.
In 2013 the introduction of Universal Credit will remove the threshold of 16 hours for when single parents can claim in-work benefits. DWP research shows that single parents will then go for “mini jobs” (of less than 16 hours). But these jobs (in so far as they exist) are even more short-term, and low paid.
The future for many single parents is one of massive insecurity: working for little scraps of money, being on and off benefits, rushing from one job to another, and trying to hold it all together against the odds.