We know from research and from first-hand experiences that single parents have been hit harder than most by the COVID-19 pandemic – from lost jobs and living in poverty, to home-schooling solo and the constant worry of who will care for their children if they get COVID.
Despite the lifting of remaining restrictions on Monday 19th July 2021 (also known as ‘Freedom Day’) by the government, these problems are not going to go away for many of the UK’s two million single parent families – in fact things could be set to get much worse.
Looking ahead, many single parents will also be worried about what is coming around the corner as the vital support that many have relied on to make ends meet comes to an end. The conclusion of the furlough scheme, Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, Test and Trace Support Payments, and the £20 uplift in Universal Credit in September will leave many single parent families on a financial cliff edge.
We need to see the government pay proper attention to the unique needs of single parents and to ensure they are not left behind as we all focus on building back better and take another step closer to a new normality.
Before the pandemic, we had a two-tier society with single parents and their children firmly at the bottom and trapped in a cycle of disadvantage. COVID-19 has exacerbated this, particularly for those single parent families headed by parents of colour or with disabilities. Research shows that poverty has a far greater impact on life chances than family make-up and this government must support single parents and their children to thrive.
Key concerns for single parents on ‘Freedom Day’ (19th July 2021)
Risk of infection
Rising infection rates make everyone uneasy but we know single parents are particularly anxious, especially where they or their children are vulnerable. Single parents are worried about how safe their families will be from the virus when returning to work – and how they will cope alone if they or their children get sick. If we’re not going to keep Test and Trace Support Payments, furlough payments or the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, we need other forms of adequate bridging support for single parents who are isolating or self-employed.
Work and training opportunities
Before the pandemic, record numbers of single parents (69%) were in work and many are keen to return and play their part in the economy, but COVID has made work incredibly difficult or even impossible for many single parents who are parenting alone.
Single parents often work in insecure jobs or on zero-hours contracts and many are unable to work from home. Single parents are much more likely to have worked in shut-down industries, such as retail or hospitality and they are also more likely to have been furloughed than couple parents.
Since the start of the pandemic single parents have been juggling work, home schooling and caring for children who are either ill or isolating, often with little or no support. This has forced many to reduce their working hours and some have been pushed out of the workforce altogether. This has led to worry over job security and a loss of income. The government must act now to support working single parents and ensure appropriate mechanisms are in place that will genuinely help them to return to work safely – such as guaranteeing their rights to flexible work, and developing tailored back to work and training support for single parents, as well as appropriate childcare options.
The childcare sector is still reeling from the fallout of the pandemic and suitable, affordable childcare is like gold dust, meaning many parents simply won’t be able to get a place for their children – particularly over the school summer holidays. Some jobs can’t be done from home – single parents are over-represented in jobs in the retail and hospitality sectors – and we know some employers will insist on people going back to their places of work. Single parents will be in an impossible position if they can’t get childcare and there is a real risk that they will lose their jobs if they are unable to go back to work.
We need to see proper support given to childcare providers so they are protected from closure and the government must ensure single parents can access affordable and suitable childcare, for example through help with the upfront costs under Universal Credit and a review of the income thresholds for help with childcare. It is scandalous that the latter have not been reviewed since 2003.
The summer holidays will be particularly tough for single parents struggling to find appropriate holiday childcare. Employers must also play their part in supporting their single parent workforce and be mindful of the fact that due to their caring responsibilities they may be unable to work out of the home over the summer holidays.
Both government and employers can play a vital role in ensuring single parents are not left behind and locked out of the workforce for the long term.
The patchy financial support that single parents have been able to access throughout the pandemic is due to end very soon. Many single parents families rely on just one household income and often struggle to make ends meet through no fault of their own. This makes prioritising food spending and other essential costs a challenge. Lack of availability and choice for goods, and costs associated with children being at home during periods of lockdown and isolation has pushed many households into debt and reliant on foodbanks to make ends meet.
It isn’t right that single parents are left to struggle and children are forced to live in poverty. We need to see:
- the retention of the £20 uplift in Universal Credit and its extension to legacy benefits and longer term the improvement of welfare support to ensure it brings single parent families to a minimum standard income. Recent research shows that a single parent family with two children is £140 a week short of a minimum income if unemployed, but still £46 short if the parent is in full-time work.
- the continuation of free school meals provision during the summer holidays to ensure all eligible children have access to food and nutrition during the holiday months.
The two-child limit and the benefit cap must be lifted if we are to see an end to larger single parent families struggling with stigma as well as deeper poverty.
Throughout the pandemic, the needs of single parents have been forgotten. They have been left to manage alone through seemingly endless periods of national lockdowns, regional lockdowns, self-isolation when they or their children have been exposed to COVID-19 and a myriad of other restrictions on their day-to-day lives. Some have experienced poverty and destitution. The toll that all of this is having on the mental health and wellbeing of single parents is unprecedented – almost half of single parents told us they had experienced difficulties with their mental health and wellbeing in the year since the pandemic began. Financial pressures, job insecurity and worries about the health and safety of their families will simply compound this. If we are really going to ‘Build Back Better’ for everyone, government and employers must act now to ensure single parents and their children are not left behind.
Facts and Figures
- There are 1.8 million single parents in the UK. They make up over a fifth of families with dependent children
- 90% of single parents are women
- 1.27 million single parents on UC – a quarter of all claimants
- The majority of benefit capped households are single parents – around 110,000 of 200,000 benefit capped households. Because they are benefit capped they were never eligible for the £20 Universal Credit uplift.
- Therefore around 1.1 million single parents will be £20 a week worse off because of the uplift being axed – all on low income because of unemployment or in low paid employment.
- There are also single parents who because they were on “legacy benefits” (not UC) would not have been eligible for the uplift.