More Children Expected to Live in Poverty Unless Government and Employers Remove Systemic Barriers That Stop Single Parents from Working

06 February 2023

Gingerbread is today publishing a report which lays bare the near-insurmountable challenges faced by single parents who are desperately seeking work and struggling to support their family. Despite the Chancellor’s commitment to ensuring people “can get the support they need” to increase their hours or earnings, this new report clearly shows single parents are prevented from being ‘economically active’ by a combination of factors beyond their control. These systemic barriers put single parents and their children at a greatly increased risk of living in poverty and experiencing the harm and disadvantage this brings.

The report was supported by abrdn Financial Fairness Trust and included analysis from the Labour Force Survey. It shows that single parents want to work, with those who are employed almost twice as likely as couple parents to want to work more hours (14% vs 8%). Single parents describe wanting to provide financial security and to be a role model for their children, they also tell us how important work is for their mental health and wellbeing. However, single-parent unemployment rates are consistently double those of couple parents and they face significant barriers when trying to get back into work or to increase their hours. 

Victoria Benson, Chief Executive of Gingerbread, the charity that supports single parent families said:

“The UK is in the midst of an employment crisis with an incredible 90% of employers saying they are struggling to fill roles. Single parents are valuable to our economy and they want to work – but they need flexibility and support. This government’s lack of support for childcare and flexible work is having a huge impact on single parents and we simply cannot stand by and watch them and their children fall into poverty.

“If the Chancellor genuinely wants to address the UK labour shortage, this government needs to work with employers to ensure more quality part-time and flexible roles are made available and that single parents can access the childcare that they need. It’s essential that single parents are high on the political agenda as the government seeks to grow the economy and support unemployed people back into work.

“This could be a real opportunity to remove barriers to work and allow single parents to use their skills and experience to help not only their families but also our wider economy.”

Worryingly, since the pandemic, the proportion of single parents who have been made redundant has almost doubled while this has increased by just a third for couple parents. In addition, single parents are far more likely to face extended periods of unemployment. In 2019-2020 28% of single parents were out of work for a year or more, in 2020 to 21 this figure increased to 32%. The proportion of couple parents remained static at 23% over both time periods. Similarly, the proportion of single parents out of work for two years or more increased from 11% in 2019-20 to 15% in 2021-22 while it declined from 10% to 8% for couple parents over the same period. Being out of work for protracted periods not only makes it harder to find, compete for, and secure a job but it also impacts people’s prospects, household incomes, and health and wellbeing.

An increased risk of redundancy, the very real threat of long-term unemployment, and the cost-of-living crisis sound a clear alarm that we will see even more single parents and their children pushed into poverty. This is extremely worrying as data shows children of single parents were already twice as likely as those in two-parent families to live in poverty in the year before the pandemic (49% vs 25%). This figure will only get worse without urgent, targeted support for single parent families.

CHILDCARE is a big concern for all parents but a lack of availability and flexibility, coupled with the extremely high cost means it is an even bigger issue for single parents who have less financial and practical flexibility than couple parents. Lack of affordable, accessible childcare stops single parents from working as many hours as they need or would like to, or drives them out of the job market altogether.

Many single parents are unable to use formal childcare because of both the cost and the need to pay upfront fees.  Having to pay upfront for childcare means that single parents are often forced into debt before they’ve even started work and received a single salary payment. It is not unusual to hear that this means single parents simply can’t afford to start work at all. In addition, the level of childcare support that single parents can receive through the Universal Credit system is capped at a figure set in 2005, so it in no way covers 2023 childcare costs and is generally insufficient for anything more than part-time work.  If this government wants single parents to work more hours, it must urgently address the childcare cap under Universal Credit.

FLEXIBLE WORK is essential for single parents who cannot juggle childcare as couple parents can. However, there is a lack of quality, flexible jobs. Recent analysis shows that the number of people wanting part-time roles outstripped availability by 4 to 1. In addition, posts that were advertised as part-time at the point of hire were typically lower paid.

We know that too many single parents are forced to work below their skill level in order to secure flexible work. This means that not only is the UK workforce is missing out on the skills of single parents but too many single parents are trapped on low incomes with little to no hope of career progression while their children are young. This harms both our economy and household incomes of single parent families.

Employers are missing out on the skills and potential of thousands of single parents and the economy is missing out on the contribution that single parents could bring to it. Timewise estimates that around 118,000 single parents could be in a ‘quality’ part-time role but are currently unemployed or in a lower-paid part-time positions – these single parents could make a huge difference to the economy.

Key recommendations

Flexible working must be the default

  • The government must work with employers and employer bodies to emphasise the business case for greater flexibility in job roles and consider financially incentivising employers to divide full-time positions into job-shares
  • Employers should advertise vacancies flexibly from day one unless there are good business reasons not to do so.
  • The DWP and the BEIS should work with employer groups, single parents and groups that represent single parents to develop targeted recruitment programmes with industries with skills shortages.

Childcare system needs reform and investment to support working parents

  • The government should urgently review and invest in the childcare sector to ensure that it meets single parents’ needs and is affordable, costing a household no more than 5% of their income. In Sweden, on average, full time childcare costs 2.62% of the monthly earnings of a two-parent family
  • DWP should introduce a national childcare non-repayable grant to meet the upfront costs of the first month of childcare fees (a similar scheme is already in place in Northern Ireland) to support low-income parents entering work.
  • The Department for Education (DfE) should review the childcare caps set in 2005, which do not deliver the promised childcare support of paying up to 85% under UC.
  • DWP should make childcare support available to all job-seeking single parents undertaking training or improving their skills, not just those with preschool-aged children

Cost-of-living crisis

  • The government should provide immediate financial support for low-income single parents struggling with rising costs and identify them as a priority in all programmes to help tackle the cost of living.
  • For many, the rising cost of living has made them even keener to find or sustain work; it has made some single parents more reluctant to take low-paid roles and keen to ‘hold on’ for better-paid opportunities.
  • For others, the rising cost of living represents a barrier to finding work. For example, the increasing cost of fuel and transport can limit the ability of single parents to travel, which influences the suitability of specific roles. In addition, childcare costs lead some to question whether they would be financially better off at work.

Karen Barker, Head of Policy and Research at abrdn Financial Fairness Trust, said:

“A coordinated effort is needed to address the systemic failures identified in this report. The current status quo is affecting employers, who can’t fill vacancies and single parents, who want to work but can’t find affordable childcare and flexible work. Addressing these issues would benefit both the economy and the financial well-being of families.”

Download the report