With households across the country facing the worst inflationary shock since the 1980s, charities warned that single mothers were suffering a heavier toll from soaring energy prices and the rising cost of a weekly shop. Experts said the benefits cap, first imposed in 2013, and the four-year freeze on benefits, were among the biggest drivers of financial damage for single mothers.
Half of all children in lone-parent families are now living in relative poverty, according to research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that shows how a decade of austerity-driven cuts to benefits has left single parents among the most exposed to soaring inflation. The impact of cuts to state support by successive Conservative governments has left women raising their children alone in a much weaker position to cope with the shocks of the pandemic and rising prices of basics such as food and heating. It shows relative poverty for children in lone-parent families has risen at a significantly faster rate compared with other households.
“Lone parents on low incomes are particularly reliant on income from benefits. These cuts to benefits have offset rising employment incomes in recent years, which have been large for lone parents,” the IFS said.
The vast majority of the 1.8 million lone-parent families in Britain – almost nine out of 10 – are headed by women. Together, they are raising 3.1 million children – more than a fifth of all children.
Relative poverty is defined as having an income of less than 60% of the national median, adjusted for household size.
For single parents, this measure of poverty rose by nine percentage points between 2013-14 and 2019-20 to reach 49% at the onset of the global health emergency. In sharp contrast, the rate for children in two-parent families rose by only two percentage points to reach 25%.
Linking the growing divisions in society with the decade of austerity imposed by Conservative-led governments, the IFS said the rise in poverty for children living in lone-parent households “reflects reductions in the real value of state benefits in the years from 2011 to 2019”. Among the cuts in support that have most affected single mothers are the benefit cap, the four-year freeze in benefits between 2016 and 2020, the two-child limit and a lowering of the age of the youngest child when single parents must start looking for work. Before 2008, lone parents were able to claim income support until their youngest child reached 16, or 19 in full-time education. After changes first introduced by the last Labour government, and made substantially tougher by the Conservative-led coalition, this age limit was repeatedly cut. Now single parents are expected to prepare for work when their youngest reaches one, and then be in a job from the age of three.
“Absolutely it increases child poverty,” said Morag Treanor, the professor of child and family inequalities at Heriot-Watt University. “Single parents don’t have the security to build what is required to search for work until they get their children into school or proper childcare. It’s very detrimental, it’s distressing and it has an impact on the mothers and the children.”
Victoria Benson, the chief executive of Gingerbread, the charity for single-parent families, said: “The pandemic and the cost of living crisis have made their lives much worse, and the welfare system just doesn’t provide the necessary level of support.”
Separate research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that lone parents were more likely to be food insecure amid the cost of living crisis – with as many as 70% going hungry and skipping meals compared with 55% for non-lone parents. The poverty charity said as many as 40% were unable to keep their home warm compared with 31% for two-parent families. Single parents were more likely to have taken on new debts, visited a food bank, and have gone without a bath, shower or basic toiletries.
Alison Garnham, the chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said: “This alarming research is a wake-up call showing the need for additional support for families with children in response to the cost of living crisis. It is no surprise to see child poverty rates rising fast for lone-parent families after the harsh effects of years of benefit cuts and freezes, and with no shock absorbers left to deal with inescapable soaring living costs.”
Figures from Child Poverty Action Group show there were 3.9 million children living in poverty in the UK last year, more than a quarter of all children, or eight in a classroom of 30.