Single parents and their children in Northern Ireland likely to experience significant financial struggles

18 October 2023

The NI Executive and other policymakers need to respond to financial hardship experienced by single and separated parents in Northern Ireland, says new research today [18 October] from charity Parenting Northern Ireland and the Centre for Effective Services (CES).

The research has been released during National Parenting Week 2023 to highlight the financial struggles faced by many single and separated parents in Northern Ireland. The report, funded by abrdn Financial Fairness Trust, draws on a series of interviews, focus groups and a survey of 247 single parents living in Northern Ireland. It found that:

- 7 out of 10 single or separated parents in the survey had borrowed money for essentials

- Single parents with large families and parents with younger children were most likely to say they struggled financially

- ‘Resident’ single parents – meaning parents with whom children lived most of the time - were much more likely to experience ongoing financial difficulties

- Single and separated parents wanted to work but faced obstacles, such as inflexible childcare, limited employment options, and a lack of understanding by employers about single parents’ needs

- Social security was viewed by many single parents as essential, but too many were excluded from applying. For those that qualified, levels were too low to meet needs.

Benefits were complex to access, poorly publicised and viewed as unreliable.

A mum, Julie, said: “For single parents, applying for Universal Credit is mired in difficulty. Once low-income families and vulnerable persons apply for benefits, they must wait several weeks before they receive any income and the system no longer backdates payments. [This] is further marginalizing vulnerable groups and pushing them further into poverty”.

Financial struggle led to physical and mental health impacts for many of the single and separated parents, and their children. Some parents experienced anxiety and depression, issues with sleep and weight, as well as worsening of pre-existing health conditions. In the survey:

- 9 out of 10 single parents said financial worries had impacted their mental wellbeing

- Nearly 8 out of 10 parents said financial pressure had affected their physical health

- 50% of parents said their children’s mental health was impacted by financial hardship

- Well over a third of parents said their children’s physical wellbeing was affected by financial hardship.

- Some single parents described significant challenges in meeting basic needs for their children; food, clothes and a warm home.

One mum told researchers: "The cost of living is so high, it’s stopped us living our lives. We just seem to be existing. I’m sitting here with a duvet and blanket over me in the living room and I can still feel the cold”.

The report calls for key changes to protect single and separated families from financial hardship, including:

- The Northern Ireland (NI) Executive should consider targeted support for one parent families, amongst introducing other financial support for low-income families

- Government departments in Northern Ireland, local councils and the voluntary and community sectors need to make sure single parents get accurate information about benefits, support and information on what they are entitled to

- Families need free access to emotional support and family mediation services for both parents, to help reduce separation costs: high legal fees and conflict have a lasting financial and parenting impact on families

- The Department for Communities and other NI government departments need to improve employment opportunities and employment culture to support single parents with flexible, part-time jobs and a childcare strategy.

Charlene Brooks, Chief Executive of Parenting NI noted:

“I’m deeply concerned to learn the extent of the impact of separation on these parents. It is extremely worrying that parents are struggling to provide the basics of food and heat for their families, which will inevitably impact their ability to provide adequately for their family. Parenting NI hears daily of the struggles facing these parents and the impact this is having on both their own and their child/young person’s mental health. This research highlights that this is not an issue that can wait, these parents are struggling and need targeted support to address these issues, to prevent a further escalation.”

Dr Alison Montgomery from CES commented:

“CES was delighted to be able to work with Parenting NI to better understand the needs of lone parents and we hope the research provides the evidence Government and other organisations need to address this critical issue. The findings indicate that lone parents in Northern Ireland are particularly vulnerable to financial hardship and this can affect many aspects of their lives and their children’s lives. Many parents struggle to cope alone and find it difficult to access financial support, information about benefits and affordable childcare”.

Vivienne Jackson, Programme Manager at abrdn Financial Fairness Trust, added:

“Systems meant to support families are letting down single and separated parents in Northern Ireland. Policymakers should look to examples elsewhere where single parents get specific financial support, consider access to free mediation to save families money in the longer run, and work for an employment shift towards flexible opportunities and better childcare.”

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