Welfare cuts hit single black mothers hardest

Reductions in benefits bite even deeper when they come on top of racial discrimination at work and at home. As Paul George discovers, many women are forced into desperate measures in order to survive
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The Independent Online
SINGLE black mothers are being disproportionately hit by the decreasing value of lone parent benefits and welfare reform, according to campaigners.

A conference yesterday, attended by representatives from black women's organisations across the country, heard that the Government has failed to recognise the unique problems faced by lone ethnic minority parents.

It was predicted that new cuts to lone parent benefits, being introduced from next week, will make the plight of single black mothers, as well as other lone mothers, even worse. It could mean some being pushed into earning a living through illegal means, such as prostitution.

A number of benefits, including the premium and child benefit for lone parents, have been frozen since April 1996. This money is vital to many single parents and, because of rising prices, has declined in value.

Next week the first of two new cuts to lone parent benefits will be introduced. This reduction, and the other to be implemented in June, will see many single parents losing several pounds a week.

Due to measures announced in the Budget, the majority of lone parents will be able to claw back much of what they have lost, but not for several months.

Campaigners for single black and Asian parents say there are several obstacles that uniquely affect them, factors even more important because it is estimated that more than 54 per cent of black families are headed by a lone parent.

According to the conference organisers, the SIA national network of black women's organisations and Nehanda, a black women's charity, ethnic minority single parents face several specific problems.

The SIA says single black parents have to cope with discrimination in the job market, which reduces their opportunities to earn the same salaries as lone white parents. They also have to provide more support for their children, who are disproportionately stopped by the police, bullied and expelled while at school, and play truant to avoid such bullying.

In addition, parent networks are often run by white people with little understanding of non-European cultures.

One delegate at the conference, who did not wish to be named, said her ability to look after her children was undermined by discrimination in the labour market. The woman, who lives in south London with two daughters, aged seven and three, failed to find a professional job, despite gaining a politics degree and having work experience with an MP in Westminster.

She told the Independent on Sunday: "I made more than 100 applications for jobs in politics, such as research, but didn't get anywhere. It was very depressing and I have a strong suspicion that my African-sounding name counted against me.

"In the end, I had to settle for a part-time job with the Sock Shop at Liverpool Street Station. That was tough because I was having to look after my children, making sure the younger one got to her child-minder and the other one got to primary school, and still do the job properly. And after all that, I was actually worse off and less able to provide for my children because, as I was in work, my benefits were cut."

Another single black mother, Sharon Omari, 36, from north- west London, said that the falling value of lone parents' benefits and discrimination in the labour market is forcing many ethnic minority mothers and other poor lone mothers to make ends meet through illegal means.

She says: "Black mothers who try to work in the established labour market end up at the bottom of the pile, so many decide to earn money through clandestine means, like shoplifting or doing extra work on the sly, so that they can enjoy the lifestyle of many lone white mothers.

"Some of my black friends are in prostitution, because it gives them the kind of flexibility they need in order to look after their children properly. Other friends have had to take part in other illegal practices, just to get by."

Joy Francis, SIA's policy advisor, believes the latest government changes to welfare will disproportionately affect single black and Asian parents because it has failed to understand their unique problems.

She says: "The idea that those on benefit should go out to work will have an adverse effect on ethnic minority mothers because they will find it a lot harder to get a good job than many lone white mothers."

Harriet Harman, Social Security Secretary said: "Women from black and Asian communities have always been at the forefront of demands for government action to tackle poverty and social exclusion - by helping lone parents into work and by helping women with their child care needs. These are demands this government is meeting - through the new deal for lone parents and through our national child care strategy which will ensure high-quality, affordable child care is available in every community.

"We are ensuring that black and Asian communities are fully involved in the new deal for lone parents and have the opportunity to feed into discussions on the future of the scheme.

"The Sandwell African Caribbean Development Agency - a voluntary organisation that has been taking part in the new deal since April 1997 - will join a consultative panel that we are currently setting up to discuss future developments in the scheme. And, in June, I will be attending a conference organised by the Black Training and Enterprise Group - a conference with the specific objective of extending the dialogue between groups representing black lone parents and government."