Single parents like me have it hard enough in austerity Britain without the stigma and ageism

Poorer single parents are often vilified as irresponsible for choosing to have children before financially securing their place in society, and austerity has made it even harder for them to maintain a grip on even the bottom rung

Lourdes Walsh
Saturday 26 October 2019 10:21 BST
Jeremy Corbyn: Labour will scrap cruel and unjust Universal Credit

Universal credit, the austerity policy used to beat the most vulnerable in society, is once again under a spotlight. The oppression of single parents, mostly anecdotal before, is now statistically proven. If you are a young single parent, the Britain of 2019 is a place of spiralling child poverty where mothers are penalised for giving birth before their mid-twenties, at their physiological peak.

The majority of single parents have lost out under universal credit. Single parents under the age of 25 receive up to £790 less per year than older parents, despite entitlement being calculated against current household income and number of dependent children. For many at the bottom of our socio-economic gradient, £790 is the difference between a home and a hostel, electricity and candlelight, a family fed and meals shared and skipped.

Poorer single parents are often vilified as irresponsible for choosing to have children before financially securing their place in society, and austerity has made it even harder for them to maintain a grip on even the bottom rung.

Rolled out as a combined benefit payment for those out of work or, increasingly, those in work and still in poverty, universal credit was designed to be one payment which would replace the main six means-based benefits, including housing benefit and child tax credit. The government proudly describe it as “a vital reform that rewards work” instead of “trapping people into welfare dependency”. However, the government also has admitted that 100,000 people have been pushed into poverty due to the changes in the young parent allowance.

As inequality increases and family dynamics evolve, 49 per cent of single parent families live in poverty, as reported by Gingerbread. Yet the Department for Work and Pensions declares success as employment rates among single parents are at a record high, with more female single parents in work than those married or cohabiting. It is known that DWP-appointed work coaches regularly dole out food bank resources while recording a claimant’s monthly earned income. The recording of income is vital in adjusting finances on the sliding scale of poverty. Due to the persistence of zero-hour contracts, inflexible working and transfer to self-employment, in-work poverty consistently rises, castigating those who are honest and hardworking but still living in poverty.

Universal credit has not alleviated pressures on these families. Money does matter, and to none more so than those without. Poverty directly affects the life expectations and opportunities of children, whether it be through experiences or healthy meals; dinners are not indulgent culinary explorations when it is the only meal of the day. Not only does income affect the cognitive development of children, but financial stress also impacts their social and emotional relationships. A mother under financial stress is not a mother who can easily sit and read to or play with their child. It will not be easy for her to disengage from the bills and uncertainty and simply be present with her child.

Poor mental health is higher among single parents. This is primarily due to financial hardships stemming from meagre job opportunities which lead to home insecurity. We know that homes with structure and stability positively influence children’s attainment in school. It is difficult to immerse oneself in your child’s education when school lunch debt and uniform needs contribute to playground politics. This is made worse by a background of school funding cuts, which are impacting a previously invaluable support structure.

Therefore, the pressure on the relationship between parent and child is as a contributing factor to increased depression and anxiety amongst families, as well as isolation and paranoia in parents. Debt exacerbated by this current benefit system has been linked to an increase in suicides, with a study commissioned in Gateshead and Newcastle citing the system as “complicated, dysfunctional and punitive”.

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As young, single parents we talk and share our own stories about families in temporary accommodation, mealtimes afforded by the Trussell Trust food banks, the fact that work is a luxury due to mounting childcare costs and travel expenses. The ONS reports that almost a third of mothers have had to cut working hours due to childcare expenses. The Young Women’s Trust agrees that an increase in work hours is “often impossible when childcare is so expensive it costs more than the pay they receive”. We are aware of the reality, not just the statistics.

Young single parents suffer discrimination from conception to schooling. When visiting the GP during my own early pregnancy, the doctor asked me, “What are you here for?” She seemed taken aback when I informed her I was following NHS advice on antenatal care. Age and experience are often viewed as “good parent” credentials, even among the medical profession. When parental competency is questioned due to age, surely cutting resources and support contradicts all aims of a healthy, happy state?

The welfare state is being dismantled. The people it was created to protect and buoy are being slowly strangled in a web of failures and sanctions. The targets set to eradicate child poverty are left at the wayside as parents who are responsible and nurturing – with families as important as any others – are told their age and relationship status should reduce the value of their own lives, as well as that of their children.

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