Missed opportunities that single parent families can ill afford
Changes are needed now to universal credit and employment, in order to make work pay. In less than a fortnight the Chancellor will make his autumn statement, announcing key details about how the new system of benefits and tax credits will operate when it is introduced next year.
Universal credit has been championed by ministers as the cure for an ailing benefits system that currently fails to make work pay. But as our new research ‘Struggling to make ends meet‘ shows, unless the government gets it right on the detail, universal credit will fail to provide all working single parent families with a route out of poverty, and will in fact act as a disincentive to work longer hours for some.
There is no doubt that universal credit has the potential to help single parents by simplifying the system, and in particular should improve work incentives for single parents entering work on small numbers of hours. But our research shows that, unless greater investment is made in the universal credit system, the government simply won’t fulfil its promise that every additional hour of work will always pay.
Far too many single parent families will continue to find themselves trapped on low incomes, unable to change this by working longer hours. In particular, single parents with high childcare and housing costs could find themselves stuck on a financial plateau, where working longer hours makes little financial sense.
While many single parents are finding it hard to make working longer hours add up, others are struggling to enter the workplace at all. Our findings on universal credit were published in the same week as the government announced changes to parental leave and flexible working. Promoting flexible working has great potential to get many more single parents into work, as the shortage of flexible jobs is one of the most significant barriers to work – and work that pays – for single parents.
However, the announcement was a missed opportunity to make flexible working a reality for those returning to the job market. Until the right to request flexible working is an option from the job application stage, rather than after six months in post, flexible jobs will continue to be in short supply for the parents who need them who aren’t currently in work.
In yet another announcement in a busy policy week, the government launched a new consultation on how best to measure child poverty. The good news here was that, as well as keeping income as the core measure, the government is also considering the impact of parental skills and employment in its consultation, which we would agree are key issues to address. However, debates over measurement must not take precedence over action, and we would be deeply concerned if a further three month consultation prevented immediate action on child poverty.
Fundamentally, until the government makes changes to universal credit that will ensure it offers a route out of poverty for all working single parents, and workplace legislation opens up the jobs that would enable them to earn more while balancing their caring responsibilities, little progress will be made.
The Chancellor has a unique opportunity to change the lives of single parent families for the better next month. Let’s hope he takes it.