Single parents tend to get a bad press and much of it is based around inaccurate information which fails to take account of the practical barriers they face.
According to the charity Gingerbread, which operates a helpline providing advice and support, the average age of single parents is 38. Single parents head a quarter of families with dependent children and most don’t receive maintenance payments.
Working Families’ recently released Modern Family Index says that in 2016 86 per cent of the 1.9 million single parent families were women. It outlines the pressures they face to make ends meet.
It says that 65 per cent of single parents with one to two children are working, but this drops to 47 per cent for those with three or more children. They face particular problems around childcare and flexible working when their children are very young and are almost twice as likely to be not working as those in couples.
They are also more likely than other mothers to be doing low skilled jobs such as cleaning and catering which offer more flexible hours. Recent statistics show more than 14 per cent of single mothers were employed in low-skilled occupations, compared with eight per cent of mothers in a couple relationship. Moreover, 40 per cent of mothers in a couple relationship worked in higher skilled occupations like nursing or teaching, compared with 17 per cent of single mothers.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2016, a single parent with one pre-school or primary aged child needed to earn at least £27,909 a year before tax to achieve the minimum income standard (how much income households need to afford an acceptable standard of living). It is not a surprise then that children in single parent families are significantly more likely to live in poverty than in couple parent families.
They are also more likely to face discrimination at work. According to the Equality & Human Rights Commission’s ongoing Power to the Bump campaign, one in four single mums has reported a negative impact on their health and stress levels during pregnancy because of their treatment at work.
Based on its research, it says single mothers are also four times more likely than other women to be dismissed during pregnancy and twice as likely as other mums to feel under pressure to hand in their notice because of their pregnancy.
Sarah Fairbairn* has been a single parent on and off for 18 years and worked part time in social care when her children were small, going full time when they started school.
She earns £18K. While two of her children are earning – though their wages are low – and one is at university, but lives at home, she has three who are still in full-time education.
She gets support from her family who help with school drop-offs and pick-ups and in the school holidays.
She says tax credits and benefits are crucial to supplement her income. Due to the recent changes in tax credits, she has fallen into debt, but is paying the money she owes back very slowly. She says she is unable to do much overtime to increase her wages and pay back her debts because of childcare issues and concerns that her benefits will be cut if she does more hours.
She believes the media tends to give an overly negative view of single parents as benefits ‘scroungers’ who don’t want to do anything to improve their family’s economic situation. She says: “The media tends to look at single parents as users, taking benefits.” She adds that their children are depicted as deviants getting into petty crime.
She would like to see them taking a broader look at the statistics. “Many single parents are happy to talk about how they work to provide for their children. There are lots of difficulties associated with this, but they do it so that their children can see that it is normal to work so you can buy things and not to expect to pay things with benefit pay-outs,” she says.
She would also like them to focus on positive stories of single parents who educate themselves to help their families out of poverty and at the barriers many face in doing so such as childcare difficulties and the lack of good quality flexible jobs.
She herself has two degrees, but had to go back to her pre-single parent work in social care because she needed hours that fit around her family. “I do not have much scope for advancing my career and doing extra hours/taking on extra responsibility, but I do have an employer who understands that I cannot spend a great deal of time away from my family,” she says.
*not her real name