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New figures show single parents have borne the brunt of austerity.
It emerged last week that over 85% of those affected by the benefit cap have been single parents – the vast majority of them mums.
According to Department for Work and Pensions figures released by Labour, 134,044 households have had benefits capped, of which 114,337 are households headed by a single female with a dependent child.
This represents a huge rise since last August when around 50,000 single parents had been capped. The cap limits the amount of benefits a household can receive to £20K and £23K in Greater London.
The stated aim of the cap was to encourage people into work. Instead it has seen families moved around the country, away from support networks which often raises barriers to employment.
Statistics from single parent charity Gingerbread show children in single parent families are twice at risk of living in poverty than those in couple families and that less than half of single parents have a child maintenance arrangement.
It says single parents have been affected by the severe reductions in tax credits since 2015, including working tax credits.
Although the latest Budget included some attempt to address the cuts in the work allowance element of tax credits, in recognition of how single parents have been disproportionately affected, there is still a long way to go to restore living standards.
At the weekend Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake aired. It is no accident that one of the main characters was a single mum, forced out of London and away from her family and friends due to benefits cuts. She ended up resorting to prostitution in order to feed her children. The film is a searing indictment of the inhumanity of austerity policies.
Universal Credit brings together a host of benefits under one umbrella in an effort to simplify the system and while it is projected that there will be ‘winners’ from the scheme, it has been heavily criticised due to various factors, including delays in accessing money which has resulted in significant increases in food bank use in areas where UC has been rolled out.
In tandem with UC and cuts in benefits generally, a benefits sanctions regime has been imposed which allows benefits to be withdrawn for specific periods of time, supposedly to encourage people to actively seek work.
Currently, single parents need to actively seek work as soon as their youngest child turns three or risk sanctions – this change in policy accounts for some of the rise in female employment figures in recent years.
The DWP says a person’s Jobcentre advisor should be “reasonable” when it comes to factoring in parental responsibilities, for instance, school hours and childcare issues, some claimants say this does not always happen and sanction appeal figures seem to back this up.
Figures from last April which show 62% of single parent sanctions were overturned when formally challenged, compared with 55% for other claimants.
Universal Credit has not yet been rolled out around the country, but Gingerbread says that one in four of current Universal Credit claimants are single parents.
Over the weekend it was reported that the new DWP Secretary Amber Rudd is to scrap plans for a parliamentary vote on rolling out UC. Instead approval will reportedly only be sought for a pilot scheme that transfers just 10,000 people from the old to the new system.
This hopefully will spur a major rethink in benefits policy generally. I say ‘hopefully’ advisedly because who knows what will happen in the next few months [or indeed years, given the impact of Brexit could drag on and on] and how this will change the nature of the welfare state we have grown up with.
Sam Royston’s recent book Broken Benefits gives some suggestions of ways forward.
I grew up in a single parent family. It makes you very clear that there is nothing certain in this life, that everything can change, sometimes in what seems like an instant, and that there needs to be an effective safety net to help people get back on their feet again and just keep going.
Many in my profession have been instrumental in creating the climate which made benefits sanctions, delays in payments and cuts possible. All the negative stereotyping of benefits claimants – and single mums in particular – have paved the way for legislation that punishes the most vulnerable – children. It also needs to take a long, cold look at itself and think again.