Lottie Dexter is the Director of the Million Jobs Campaign and former Communications Manager at the Centre for Social Justice.
This Government – it seems – understands that the last few years have been a tough time for everyone. Ministers know that the vast majority have taken a financial hit in one form or another – a pay cut, a more expensive weekly shop or even redundancy. They “get” the problems faced by those in the mainstream (that is taxpayers, consumers and voters), and they should be congratulated for taking effective action to help the majority.
Yet for all our sakes the Government must pay greater attention to those vulnerable groups struggling to navigate a dicey jobs market. In this recession, the hardest to help have become harder to help and, in particular, many lone parents, largely single mums, have been hit square in the face.
There are roughly two million lone parents in the UK, making up nearly a quarter of all families with children, and 92 per cent of these are single mums. Roughly a third of all single mums are signed up to either Jobseeker’s Allowance or Income Support – and they account for 20 per cent of total benefit claimants.
By and large these parents go to staggering lengths to ensure their children do not go without. Often on a one woman crusade, they strive to be good role models for their children. This is no small feat, and has been made more difficult in a squeezed labour market. Clearly, millions of lone parents across the UK need more help and any worthwhile jobs campaign should have their best interests, and those of their children, at its heart. After all, the child of a lone parent who does not work is twice as likely to grow up in poverty as a child whose single parent works part-time.
Mums know this, and work is what lots of them want. The single mums that I work with on the Million Jobs Campaign are desperate for their children to having a working example. They long for the added self-esteem that comes from a job and – quite often – they just want to get out of the house. Working families have the power to rejuvenate our worst off communities, and enabling more women to work pays economic dividends too: increasing women’s participation in the labour market to male levels would expand Britain’s economy by 8 per cent.
Yet, far too often, single mums find themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place. As with so many job hunters they often do not have the right skills or availability for the work going and many employers are reluctant to give them a chance. In recent years, these issues have been compounded by rising living costs, perverse welfare incentives and unaffordable childcare, meaning that working is not financially worthwhile.
For years, the worst off single mums have been struggling to manoeuvre through a nasty benefits trap, whereby putting in over 16 hours a week at work makes no sense. Bizarrely, lone parents working full-time are more likely to be in poverty than those working part-time, due to various welfare payments quickly drying up. By simplifying the system and tapering withdrawal Universal Credit should – in principle at least – help overcome this. Yet for working lone parents who are dependent on nurseries and child minders, welfare reform is meaningless if nothing is done to cut sky high childcare costs.
This would be a saving grace for millions of parents, not just single mums. The Government’s flagship reforms to relax rules around childcare and free-up the market were knocked back by Nick Clegg in June this year. There is no doubt that we need to inject more competition into this tightly regulated market so that the needs of mums are met and more can afford to take a job. Furthermore ,vague plans for a system of schools-based childcare, as championed by Liz Truss, the Education Minister, should be fleshed out with schools, businesses and charities. Good quality, reasonably priced childcare is the issue to crack if we are going to enable single mums to take work.
This must be combined with top quality careers advice so that single mums can make the best decisions for themselves and their families. Job Centres that are freed from state control and run by private firms in conjunction with local employers would help ensure that the unemployed – not just single mums – can make the best decisions. They should be equipped with good digital skills and be made aware of freelancing, home working and self-employment opportunities. These sorts of working arrangements would suit lots of single mums to a T.
Similarly, young mums, who tend not to have spent much time in work, often need intensive training as well as advice. The brilliantly reformed apprenticeship and new traineeship scheme should be tailored and promoted for mums returning to the labour market. This would give them a bridge into work, help them to nail down sustainable jobs and make sure that their decision to have children does not hinder their long-term jobs prospects.
We need to enable single mums to make the best decisions for their children. At the end of the day, whether you’re in the majority or a minority, we all want happy and healthy families, strong communities and to be proud of the Britain we live in. Weighing in on the side of single mums helps us get there.