Poor maternity pay means many mums start maternity leave in debt

A new survey from Maternity Action finds many parents are starting family life in debt.

Hand holding sign which says Maternity Leave


The UK’s poor levels of maternity pay and benefits force the majority of women to go into debt after having a baby, mean many men can’t afford to take paternity leave and are making some first-time mothers think twice about having a second child, according to a survey by Maternity Action, which says households where women are the main breadwinners are often hardest hit.

The charity’s third annual cost of living survey of more than 1,000 pregnant women and new mothers shows that that the proportion of women relying on credit cards and borrowing money to get through maternity leave has risen to 62% (up from 51% in 2022), with nearly a quarter (23%) now accumulating debts of more than £4,000.

The £184.03 weekly Statutory Maternity Pay and Maternity Allowance are currently worth less than half (46%) the £400.40 (higher rate) National Minimum Wage for a working week or less than a third of women’s average full-time earnings. Nearly three quarters (73%) of women say they worry a lot about money while pregnant or on maternity leave (up from 64% in 2022) with:

  • half (51%) buying less healthy food (up from 49% in 2023) and a quarter (26%) going without food themselves (up from 25% in 2023) to prioritise feeding their children

  • 59% saying they have cut short their maternity leave or plan to do so because of the financial issues (up from 42% in 2022)

  • a fifth (20%) saying the father or co-parent cannot afford to take any parental leave (up from 17% in 2023)

  • 65% reporting an impact on their health or well-being (up from 56% in 2022)

  • and 74% reporting the financial issues cause tension and stress with their partner.

Some of the hardest hit households are those with a new mother who has previously been the main breadwinner, or is self-employed or in insecure employment, getting little or no access to extra help from benefits owing to Universal Credit rules.

Women who have some form of occupational maternity pay on top of statutory maternity pay are less likely to say that they worry a lot about money (68% compared to 73% overall); rely on credit cards or borrowing (57% compared to 62%); struggle a lot to buy the things they need (18% compared to 23%); or that money worries affect their health or wellbeing (59% compared to 65%). This shows that the additional money they receive while on maternity leave improves their experience.

However, according to the latest Government statistics, only 13% of all women on maternity leave have access to occupational maternity pay, down from 44% in 2008.

Maternity Action has recently launched a manifesto calling on all the political parties to take action to end pregnancy poverty if elected to Government, including by investing in levels of maternity pay and benefits.

Ali Fiddy, Director of Maternity Action, said: “Pregnancy plunges new parents into poverty. The UK’s outdated system of maternity pay and leave, which presumes that women have partners who are main breadwinners, is inflicting hardship and stress on new parents and is no longer fit for purpose.

“A new generation of parents are telling us that they need action on maternity pay and benefits urgently, but no party has yet announced relevant major policy initiatives. Tackling pregnancy poverty goes to the heart of tackling the gender pay gap, child poverty and health outcomes. We must hear from all the political parties about how they plan to help new parents meet this challenge if elected.”

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