Proposals to squeeze benefit entitlement for jobless one-parent families would damage the emotional and financial
well-being of many in the longer term, writes Louise Tickle
The pressures on single parents could be about to increase if the government goes through with its proposal to cut benefit to lone-parent families when the youngest child reaches 12.
It is a big change from the current arrangement under which the UK’s 1.69 million single parents can receive income support without being required to look for work until their youngest is 16.
Campaigners for the rights of lone parents and their children are outraged at the proposal mooted by work and pensions secretary John Hutton. Although they agree that parents should be helped to find work as a way to give them new skills and lift their children out of poverty, they point out that sanctions and penalties are hardly motivating factors.
Campaign group One Parent Families says the best way to help lone parents into work is to provide them with support that acknowledges their needs as carers who are responsible for their children at all times.
Kate Bell, the organisation’s head of policy and research, says that in a recent survey, 71 per cent of non-working lone parents cited the high cost of child care and lack of flexible working hours as hindrances to taking paid employment.(1)
She says: “We’re not arguing that people shouldn’t be taking part in activities that help them to gain skills. We’d point out, however, that going back to work is often a gradual process, and we’d like to see more government subsidy offered for child care.”
Recent cuts by the Learning and Skills Council to child care funding for further education colleges have reduced opportunities as these institutions may no longer have the money to pay for child care.
Where does this leave the New Deal for Lone Parents, launched in 1998? Predictably, the Department for Work and Pensions remains positive. “We’ve helped 482,000 lone parents into work, and the employment rate is now 56 per cent, up 11 per cent from 1997,” says a spokesperson.
According to its own ambitions, the DWP wants 70 per cent of lone parents to be in work by 2010. However, 66 per cent of those targeted by the new proposals are already working. Of those whose youngest child is aged 11 or over and who are still claiming income support, a quarter care for a disabled child and half have a health condition or disability.
Bell says: “As part of the New Deal, the lone parent advisers are already doing a lot of good stuff. This move is going to take up a great deal of time for them in checking up on people and applying sanctions, and that won’t do anything for the trust and relationships they’ve built up with their clients.”
She says the cost-benefit analysis is flawed. “Even if all lone parents with a secondary school age child moved into work, the government would meet neither its child poverty nor its employment target for lone parents. Targeting the 150,000 lone parents in this group is poor value in child poverty terms.”
For a single parent, removed from policy imperatives and government targets, the prospect of having their benefit cut if they cannot or do not want to find work must be faced. Emma Harrop, aged 27, has three children younger than seven, Cydney, Taylor and Harley. She receives income support and housing benefit – and feels torn about returning to work.
She says: “I’d like to go to work, because I think it’d be good for me and good for the kids, but if they’re ill, I would definitely want to be able to stay and look after them.
“There’s three of them so between them they get poorly quite often. And holidays – what would I do then? I don’t want them to be in child care all day so I can go to work and then be working all through their holidays as well even if I could afford it.”
She points out that, as a single parent, there is no partner with whom she can negotiate shared holiday care. So the pressures that come with wanting to look after her children and do a job sit together uncomfortably in a low-pay, inflexible employment market.
She says: “If I imagine how I’d have felt when I was younger, if I’d had to leave my mum at 8am to go to a pre-school club and not see her again till 6pm. It would have been horrible. I didn’t see much of my dad as it was and, as it’s only me there, that’s what my kids would end up feeling like. If they cut your benefit I can see it would mean you’d have to work, and it might be good for someone like me who needs a bit of a push, but looking after the kids as well as working full-time would be daunting.”
Harrop would like to work, but cannot see how the type of job she would get would pay enough for her to afford the child care. She also doesn’t want her children to be looked after by other people all the time. As she first became pregnant when she was studying for her dance teacher diploma, she was unable to continue with her qualification. She says her lone parent adviser has been unenthusiastic about helping her find further training options.
When the DWP cites Denmark and Sweden as countries where far more lone parents work than do in the UK, this lack of enthusiasm that Harrop encountered may provide part of the answer: the education gap between single and coupled mothers in the UK is high when compared with other European countries.
Added to this, says One Parent Families, when a country such as Sweden spends four times as much on training than the UK, and parents here must pay 75 per cent of child care costs compared with an EU average of 35 per cent, it’s hardly surprising that some single parents will find it difficult to consider going into work.
“I’d love to re-start my dance qualification and then teach dance part-time to children,” says Harrop. “It would take a lot of dedication to get back into training. And I don’t think it would pay well, so I’d worry about my benefit being cut and then they might not pay for my housing benefit. It feels like a big risk. But that’s the dream.”
Harrop does need encouragement and support to ease her back into the kind of employment that she feels works for her family emotionally as well as financially. But simply reducing her benefits when her youngest child is 12 is unlikely to meet that need or result in the best outcome for her or her children in the longer term.
(1) Lone Parents Work and Care, One Parent Families
This article appeared in the 1 March issue under the headline “Cut and bruise”
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