Pressure mounts on single parents to move off unemployment benefits, but where are the family-friendly jobs?
Over the last two years, austerity has tightened its grip on the welfare system. Levels of child benefit have been frozen, support for help with childcare costs has been reduced and the health in pregnancy grant has been scrapped, to name but a few.
From this week, single parents will yet again feel the pinch. Single parents whose youngest child is five are no longer entitled to receive income support (IS). Instead, they will need to claim jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) or another benefit. This is one of the first provisions of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 to come into force. It is the latest in a steady stream of welfare-to-work initiatives targeted at single parents over the last 14 years.
Single parents on JSA will get the same amount of money as they did on IS but will have to show that they are actively looking for work in order to receive their fortnightly payment. But is it as simple as ‘off to work we go’?
124,000 single parents will be affected by the shake-up initially, but according to government estimates only one in five of this group will enter employment. At Gingerbread, our latest report throws a harsh light on the realities facing single parents with younger children who must now find work amid a backdrop of high unemployment and economic decline.
This is not to say that single parents will not, or cannot, find a job. Indeed, 57% of all single parents work and 54% of single parents with five and six year olds are already in paid employment. But the fact is that they need jobs that enable them to be both a worker and a parent. Part-time work is very important for single parents, and particularly for single parents of younger children. 75% of single parents in work with children under six have a part-time job. Suitable job opportunities, and in particular short-hours jobs (those of less than 16 hours a week), remain sparse. Over two-thirds (68%) of single parents enter low-waged occupations and will continue to struggle to make ends meet despite working.
Finding a job is not the only obstacle facing single parents. Securing sustainable employment is also a significant challenge. For those who succeed in finding work that fits with their caring responsibilities, a substantial minority (20%) will move out of employment again within 12 months.
For single parents with young children who have been away from the labour market for some time, access to further education provides an important stepping stone back into work. Gaining a level 3 qualification makes a significant difference to the amount of money a single parent can earn. Single parents on JSA can receive a fee remission from Jobcentre Plus for their first level 3 course. However, they have to be prepared to give up their course if offered employment or face a payment sanction if they refuse – a complete waste of public money, not only in respect to loss of fees but also in light of future potential for earnings. We know that paid work is not a guaranteed route out of poverty for single parents; the poverty rate for single parent families where the parent works part time is 25%, and 19% where the parent works full time.
A better paid job can reduce reliance on in-work benefit payments and is a step towards single parents being able to move off benefits altogether in the long term. Rigid adherence to the conditions of jobseeker’s allowance in these circumstances inhibits, rather than enables, a single parent’s ability to find better paid employment.
The vast majority of single parents want to earn their own money and get off unemployment benefits. Ensuring that single parents can complete a further education course is a worthwhile investment; it requires a modicum of patience on the part of the government and a little bit of well-placed faith in the determination of single parents to work themselves and their children out of poverty.