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Juggling work and childcare – the challenges facing single parents in the UK

Posted by Sarah Brodbin Raising Voices Officer, UK Policy, Programme and Campaigns

13th Dec 2013

Single parents in the UK are more likely to be in poverty than those in a couple, and the same goes for children of lone parent families. To find out what challenges single parents are facing in 2013, Sarah Brodbin visited one of Oxfam's oldest partners in the UK.

Last month, I visited Oxfam partner SPAN, or the Single Parents Action Network, which has been running for nearly 25 years, and was set up to offer support to single parents and to challenge the negative perceptions of lone parent families. Since then SPAN has grown in size but has maintained its local grassroots work, whilst also carrying out research and policy work designed to influence national Government policy. At their Bristol base, single parents study and prepare for the world of work whilst their children are taken care of in the centre's free crèche. The parents I spoke to there were effusive in their praise for SPAN, talking of its warm and inclusive community, and its focus on individual need.

"Most of the friends I've got and the support I've got came through SPAN, (...) and because of SPAN I now have the job I've got" - Lucille, mother of one

"Most of the friends I've got and the support I've got came through SPAN. I did a parenting course and that probably saved my relationship with my daughter, and because of SPAN I now have the job I've got", mum-of-one Lucille (pictured) told me, who recently secured a well-paid part time job with a Housing Association.

Support from organisations such as SPAN are invaluable in helping single parents back into work, but with funding in short supply such organisations are now few and far between. Across the board, from the reduction in Sure Start centres to the demise of single parent specialists at job centres, help for single parents has been drastically scaled back.  

"There used to be a lot of support around for single parents. There is now less provision to support parents into work at a time when the pressure to get back to work has greatly increased", explains Tove Samzelius, SPAN's interim chief executive, and herself a former user of SPAN's services.

Since 2008, the DWP has moved 400,000 single parents from Income Support over to Job Seekers' Allowance. Keen to fill jobs as quickly as possible and get unemployment numbers down, Jobcentre Plus staff are pushing single parents into unsuitable jobs that are hard to combine with parenting and which keep them in poverty. At the root of this problem is the archaic assumption that two-parent families are the norm - despite the fact that over a quarter of UK families is headed by single parents. In this model where one parent is primarily the breadwinner and the other the caregiver, single parents who provide both these roles are put at a disadvantage. To provide the care their children need, single parents have little option but to take flexible part-time work to allow for their childcare responsibilities. On the surface this sounds like a good solution but flexible part-time roles are almost invariably low-paid and insecure, and offer little chance of promotion.

To be able to look after her daughter, Lucille worked as a part-time carer earning just £65 a week. "It was really hard... I had to pay everything apart from the rent out of this [money]. I was trying to get extra hours but people only need the care they need, and they only want to pay the minimum. If had 16 hours' work I could have got tax credits, but I couldn't get the hours", explains Lucille.

New evidence suggests that single parents aren't just being pushed into the wrong sort of jobs, they are also being asked to prioritise job seeking over the needs of their children. Laura Dewar, SPAN's Senior Parliamentary and Policy Officer, has been investigating how the Jobcentre Plus is failing to adequately take into account single parents' caring responsibilities when demanding them to get into work.

As long as single parents are expected to provide and care for their families without adequate support (...) they will continue to be more likely to remain in poverty.

Laura explains: "Some work agreements put seeking work before responsibility to children. I spoke to a woman who was sanctioned because she couldn't make a meeting at 3.30pm with the Work Programme because she had to pick her child up from school. She then had an agreement with the school to pick her son up at quarter to three so she wouldn't be late for future Work Programme meetings. What is that about? Tell me that isn't a threat to a child's wellbeing."

Lack of affordable and flexible childcare is also a significant factor pushing single parents into poorly paid part-time work. Childcare fees often outpace the wages of single parents, and only begin to be subsidised once a child turns three, and then for just 15 hours a week. Also, when it comes to hours, it is rare to find a childcare provider who will cover the early morning and early evening periods.

Children in single parent families are twice as likely as those from couple families to live in relative poverty. As long as single parents are expected to both provide and care for their families without adequate support from government and business they will continue to be more likely to remain in poverty and on benefits. With just 16% of births registered to either single parents or parents living apart, it's clear the vast majority of single parents didn't plan to bring children up on their own. As single parent Lucille says: "I feel I'm seen as a scrounging baby factory by government... That I chose this life. It's really hard. No-one in their right mind would choose to do it without any support."

And they shouldn't have to.

Blog post written by Sarah Brodbin

Raising Voices Officer, UK Policy, Programme and Campaigns

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