Tories have shamed single parents and heaped financial pressure on them

If we can judge a society by how it treats its weakest members, then a special type of judgment should be reserved for a society that deliberately weakens certain of its members. During more than a decade of austerity, successive Conservative governments have fanned the flames of shame surrounding single parents, and used the benefits system to heap financial pressure on their already vulnerable families.

Take Iain Duncan Smith’s 2015 party conference speech. Introducing the two-child limit to benefit payments, the then work and pensions minister said it was aboutbringing home to parents the reality that children cost money”.

When we say “single parent” we probably mean single mother. There are 1.8 million single parents in the UK, a quarter of all households, and nine out of 10 of them are women. Let’s not ignore the huge, unacknowledged role that sexism plays in a system designed to impoverish and subjugate, and in the stigma that subsequently arises.

Single parents are assumed to share the same (often negative) characteristics – young, unemployed, feckless, uneducated, hyper-fertile – yet the data shows otherwise. The average age of a single parent is 39 years old and less than 1% of them are teenagers. More than half (55%) have only one child and almost half have previously been married. Single parenthood is a stage in family life and the average length of time spent as a lone parent is five years. Almost 70% of single parents are in employment and about half work full-time, a rate that increases as the age of their child increases. Yet, despite their industry, single parents and their children are at much greater risk of falling below the breadline. Half (49%) are now living in relative poverty, double the rate (25%) for two-parent households.

In 2019, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, released a damning report on the British government’s austerity programme. He found it had pushed millions into destitution, that single parents were among those hardest hit by benefits cuts, and that it might appear “women, particularly poor women, have been intentionally targeted”.

These are the policies – and political failings – that have pushed so many lone-parent families into poverty:

Until 2008, single parents in the UK on income replacement benefits were not required to look for paid work until their youngest child turned 16 years old. This age limit was reduced to 12 years old in 2008, 10 years old in 2009, seven years old in 2010, five years old in 2012, and three years old in 2017. Now, single parents are expected to prepare for work when their youngest child is one or two years old and to work a maximum of 16 hours a week (or spend 16 hours a week looking for work) when their youngest child is three or four years old. The penalty for noncompliance is the reduction or loss of benefits in the form of sanctions. Unsurprisingly, imposing such stringent conditions on single parents adversely affects their mental health and, when parental mental health suffers, children’s does, too.

The “benefit cap” was introduced in 2013 as an absolute limit on benefit levels. The cap was initially set at £26,000, then reduced to £23,000 for families in Greater London and £20,000 for families elsewhere, irrespective of the number of children in a family. (The cap is lower for people without children). This change has been particularly punitive for single parents. Until May 2020, 72% of families who had their benefits capped were single parents. By August 2021, 63% (110,000) of households that had their benefits capped were single-parent families. A further exploration into who this hurts most reveals that just over half of all single-parent capped households have a youngest child under the age of five.

The “two-child limit” was introduced in 2017 as a limit on the number of children in a family that can receive government financial support. (Twins and triplets were not similarly penalised.) This policy is expressly worrying as its full effects are yet to take place and already its main impact has been to increase the depth and incidence of child poverty. Currently, 1.1 million children are affected and their families are thousands of pounds a year worse off. This chilling development creates a two-tier system, separating those children who are worthy of our support and those who are not.

A further, lesser-discussed change is that, since the phased introduction of universal credit from 2013, younger single parents receive £66.13 less a month compared with older claimaints. This is because people under 25 are entitled to a lower allowance of benefits than people aged 25 and over. Before universal credit was introduced there was an exemption for single parents in recognition of the cost of caring for a child alone. Now, that exemption has been removed. That means an income reduction for the youngest parents of 20%. In what way does a 24-year-old parent need a fifth less income than a 25-year-old one?

About half of single parents receive no child maintenance at all, according to the Department for Work and Pensions. In 2012 under the Welfare Reform Act, the UK government changed how it would intervene when non-resident parents – most of them fathers – refused to pay. It moved from collecting maintenance directly, to requiring parents to agree post-separation financial arrangements between themselves. But such private agreements are not legally enforceable. Some countries guarantee child maintenance by making advance payments to the resident parent, and recouping the cost directly. This is why there is very high child maintenance receipt in countries such as Sweden. Children know when a non-resident parent is not complying with payments and they are often stuck in the middle trying to negotiate the tensions between cash and contact. Where fathers are contributing financially, increased involvement usually follows.

The devolved nations are trying hard to reverse the damaging impacts of benefit changes. In April 2022, the Scottish government announced plans to fully mitigate the benefit cap in Scotland. It has also introduced a Scottish child payment, currently £20 for each child a week, payable to all children in a family. In Northern Ireland families can receive a non-repayable grant of up to £1,500 for upfront childcare costs. In Wales a £51m Household Support Fund and extra payments to children eligible for free school meals, the pupil development grant, is in place. Children in England are being left behind to face the most dire of circumstances.

While the material reality of poverty differs by place, how it is experienced – as shame – is universal. Single parents face the unique challenge of being the sole carer and the main source of household income, often a challenging balancing act. They must fulfil the responsibilities of both parents, which can be a relentless, exhausting role, made worse by discrimination. Stigma and shame are useful tools of government but surely we are smart enough not to be manipulated into providing tacit support for policies that cause children to suffer.

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