Almost all single parents are in work or want to work. Single parent employment is at a record high, particularly due to big increases in support with childcare costs under working tax credits and expansion of childcare provision. The broader economy, voluntary employment support and changes to benefit rules have also played a part.

Even so, major barriers to enter, or re-enter, work remain for single parents. Local childcare is often unaffordable and inflexible when compared with the demands of jobs. Similarly, the lack of flexible work makes it hard to combine work and parenting. From our research, we also know a lack of confidence can sometimes hold single parents back from entering work.

Once in work, single parents face a significant risk of in-work poverty and can struggle to progress. They’re more likely than the average worker to enter and get stuck in low-paid work. Insecure work also means some cycle between low pay and no pay.

  • 69% of single parents are in work.
  • However, single parent employment drops when children are young and childcare costs are highest: in 2018, 30.4% of lone parents with a child aged three to four years were in full-time employment, compared with 71.6% where the youngest dependent child was aged 16 to 18 years (ii)
  • A disproportionate amount of single single parents are underemployed – the total single parent underemployment rate is 22%, compared to 9.3% across the entire economically active population (iii)
  • The pay gap between lone parents and the second earner in couples is now £2.14 an hour, compared with £0.31 in 2001/02. The pay gap between lone parents and the main earner in couples has increased from £3.59 to £5.86 an hour over the same period (iv)

Our position

Single parents need good quality, sustainable work. Gingerbread believes work should provide a decent standard of living, offer routes to progress and allow parents (and others) to balance work and home life.

Employers and childcare providers have a role to play, but the government can do much more to ensure single parents access sustainable work – through benefit conditions and their implementation, support for skills and training, childcare support and working with employers to encourage family-friendly work.

We believe parents should be able to make their own decisions about how best to combine work with family life, rather than pushed into work that doesn’t meet their family’s needs.

Our goals for change

Gingerbread wants to see the government make good on its promise to always ‘make work pay’, to protect families from in-work poverty and help them progress in work. In particular, we want to see work incentives under universal credit improved, conditions to look for work eased and reviewed, childcare support better targeted on those on the lowest incomes and a more supportive system for the low-paid self-employed.

In particular, we are calling for:

  • An end to cuts in vital support as a way of ‘incentivising’ or nudging parents into work. This includes reforming sanctions policy to introduce a genuine ‘yellow card’ system (where parents receive a warning before it’s too late) and introducing exemptions to the benefit cap
  • Improved personalised employment support – particularly improving access to higher level training courses and apprenticeships, to increase routes into more secure and longer term work
  • More and better collaboration between employers and government to encourage flexible work and progression in work across pay grades and sectors
  • Better provision of support and training to increase the skills and career opportunities for single parents of pre-school age children
  • Suspension of job-seeking requirements for single parents of pre-school age children
  • Better guidance and leadership on the creation of part-time and flexible apprenticeships that are accessible to single parents


i. ONS (2020) Working and workless households: April-June 2020. Table P.

ii. ONS (2018) Families and the labour market, England: 2018. Data for Apr-Jun 2018.

iii. Policy Exchange (2014) Parenting alone: work and welfare in single parent households. 

iv. Joseph Roundtree Foundation (2018) UK Poverty 2018: a comprehensive analysis of poverty trends and figures.

Statistics last updated October 2020

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