New data has revealed the barriers single parents face in getting back to work, while rates of in-work poverty confound the Conservative myth that work is the route to riches, Sian Norris reports

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt may be urging older people to “get off the golf course and back to work”, but if he is truly determined to fill the mass vacancies across the UK economy, he should be thinking about how to lift barriers faced by single parents wanting to return to employment. 

That’s according to a new report by the charity Gingerbread, which supports single parents and campaigns for their rights. The organisation has found multiple barriers to single parents returning to work persist, with the rate of unemployment for single parents double that of couples.

Single parents are also twice as likely to be underemployed – when a person has a job but wants to work more hours – than those in couples. Nearly half of lone-parent households are in poverty. The impact is also gendered: 90% of single parents are women. 

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Alongside Gingerbread’s report, new data from the charity Action for Children has revealed how 1.95 million children are being trapped in poverty due to parents facing at least one major barrier to working or taking on extra work.

Victoria Benson, Chief Executive of Gingerbread, said: “Single parents are valuable to our economy and they want to work – but they need flexibility and support. This Government’s lack of support for childcare and flexible work is having a huge impact on single parents and we simply cannot stand by and watch them and their children fall into poverty”.

“To improve the lives and life chances of all children we need to be honest about why so many are growing up in poverty and hardship,” said the Director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, Imran Hussain. “And we must confront the myth that everyone in poverty can simply work their way out of it”.

Nearly half a million (440,000) children are growing up in poverty in households where a parent, including a single parent, is working – exposing the myth of the Government’s mantra that work is the best strategy to end poverty. 

High Costs, No Flexibility

Nearly a third of lone-parent families are not in work – considered ‘economically inactive’ – with a higher proportion of lone mothers out of work than fathers. 

Women are more likely to be economically inactive than men, with unpaid care work the leading reason why women aged 16-64 are out of work. 1.4 million women are considered economically inactive due to caring responsibilities, compared to 0.3 million men. 

The costs of childcare are a major barrier for single parents seeking to return to employment. To send a child under two to nursery full-time costs on average 65% of a parent’s average wage – a huge outlay for an average-earning, two-parent household but out of reach for many single parents who are already struggling to make ends meet. 

The Government allows parents on Universal Credit to claim up to 85% of childcare costs – however, this offer is deeply flawed. The claim is capped at a figure calculated in 2005, at a time when childcare costs were lower than now. It is also paid in arrears, meaning parents without ready cash can still face barriers to paying for childcare.

For Thousands of Young Children, Poverty is All they have Known

Sian Norris

Some single parents have therefore found that it is more cost-effective to turn down offers of work, as the cost benefits of working full-time are lost when childcare costs are so high.

Kerry was offered a full-time job when her son was a toddler. “I worked out that I would be £20 better off working than not working, and that was paying for childcare as well”. 

“My mum said, ‘You are then paying somebody else to bring up your child while you work full- time’,” Kerry explained. 

This has led to a knock-on effect in terms of women’s economic inactivity, with increasing numbers of grandmothers leaving work before retirement age, in order to step in and help with childcare.

Statistical and anecdotal evidence suggests that far from taking early retirement to hit the golf links or swan off on a cruise ship, younger female boomers are instead looking after the grandchildren, to help struggling families reduce their nursery bills. 

As well as low wages, high childcare costs, and precarious hours, changes to the benefits system have meant that some households find they are worse off the more hours they work. 

“They try and tell you to go back to work, but even the universal credit worker said to me the other day, you are financially better off not working,” said Kerry. 

Universal credit entitlements change the more hours a person works, but low wages and the costs associated with working – such as additional childcare and transport – can mean a family is better off keeping their working hours down. Nicola, a single mum supported by Gingerbread, described it as like being “between a rock and a hard place”. 


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A Range of Barriers

Now, Action for Children has identified numerous barriers that mean some families cannot work at all, leaving them reliant on a benefits system that does not cover their basic costs.

More than two-thirds of households claiming Universal Credit have said they are cutting back on food and other essentials, while 60% of families on the benefit or Child Tax Credit have been forced to borrow money including using payday loans or credit cards to make ends meet.

Those barriers can include both parental and child disability – where a parent is not well enough to go to work, or where a child’s complex needs require more intense parental care for longer. 

Data from Action for Children has found that 1.36 million children in poor families are facing one barrier to work, such as having a disabled child, while nearly half a million children are growing up in poor families struggling to overcome two barriers to getting into the job market.

This was the case for Jack, a father of three whose youngest daughter was diagnosed with spina bifida. Jack’s wages are topped up by Universal Credit, but the money does not go far enough. 

“It’s a struggle,” said Jack. “Obviously, it comes in and then goes out very fast because the kids eat a lot. You get to the end of the month and you’re thinking, ‘What are we going to give them?’”

Jack’s third daughter was born after 2017, meaning the family is only entitled to child tax credits for their first two children. While he and his partner budgeted for that when they became pregnant, their circumstances changed when it became clear their daughter had complex needs.

“We didn’t expect to have a disabled child,” he explained. “The situation changed and that’s where it leaves you. We weren’t on benefits and then thought we’ll have three kids or whatever else, it actually changed for us and we were working up until that point. And then not to get the help, it doesn’t seem fair”. 

Action for Children is calling for Universal Credit to increase by £15 per week and to get rid of the benefit cap.


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