Half of all children in single-parent families live in relative poverty | UK cost of living crisis

Half of all children in single-parent families now live in relative poverty, according to exclusive research showing how a decade of cuts to benefits has left single parents the most exposed to rising inflation.

In the first of a series of reports from the front lines of the cost of living crisis, The Guardian today reports on the impact of cuts to state aid by successive Conservative governments, which have left women raising their children alone in a much weaker position to support it. cope with the shocks of the pandemic and rising prices of commodities such as food and heating.

The vast majority of the 1.8 million single-parent families in Britain – nearly nine in ten – are led by women. Together they are raising 3.1 million children – more than a fifth of all children.

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Single Mothers in the UK


About a quarter of all families with children in the UK are led by single parents. After an increase between the 1970s and 1990s, that figure has largely remained the same since 2001. The proportion of single parents who are fathers has remained at about 10% for more than 10 years.

There are approximately 1.8 million single-parent families with dependent children (under the age of 16 or 16-18 years in full-time education) and together they raise 3.1 million children. No less than 90% of single parents are women.

Despite the stereotypes of young mothers, less than 1% are teenagers, while their average age is 39, according to the single parent charity Gingerbread. Most have only one child, 55%, while about 32% have two and 13% have three or more children.

Before becoming prime minister, Boris Johnson wrote in a controversial column in 1995 that there was a “terrible increase in single mothers”, fueling the media stereotype of single parents. He referred to what he described as the “problem” of lonely parenting and accused “rebellious and irresponsible women for getting pregnant without a husband”.

According to Gingerbread, just under half (44%) of single parents were married when they had their children, before their breakup, divorce or partner’s compliance. Single fathers are more than three times more likely to be widowed than single mothers.

About a fifth of lone parents are of black or ethnic minority background, compared to 16% nationally, while more than a quarter have disabilities, compared to 14% of married couples.

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Research shared exclusively with The Guardian by the Institute for Fiscal Studies outlines the scale of the crisis. This shows that relative poverty for children in single-parent families has increased significantly faster compared to other households.

Relative poverty is defined as an income of less than 60% of the national median, adjusted for household size. For single parents, this poverty measure increased by nine percentage points between 2013-14 and 2019-20 to 49% at the start of the global health emergency.

In stark contrast, the percentage for children in two-parent families rose by just two percentage points to 25%.

Tony Blair, the former Labor Prime Minister, warned that families have “painful pressures on the cost of living” and that progress in fighting child poverty has been seriously undermined by sweeping benefits imposed over the past decade.

IFS Poverty Table

Eradicating child poverty by 2020 was a key commitment made by Blair during his first term in office at the turn of the millennium. However, the IFS study suggests that progress among conservatives was reversed during the post-2008 austerity measures caused by the financial crisis.

“The last Labor government made it a priority to tackle child poverty. Our policies have revolutionized single parent opportunities by making work pay – the number of single parents has increased and child poverty has plummeted,” said Blair.

“That legacy has been undermined over the past decade as state benefits have eroded, growth has been weak and wages have stagnated, despite the high employment rate of single parents.”

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Timeline: a decade of welfare cuts


2008: Job search rules: Labor lowers the age of the youngest child when a single parent on benefits has to look for paid work from 16 to 12.

2009: Single parent job search rule will be reduced to 10 years.

2010: Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition elected. Single parent job search rule will be reduced to seven years.

2012: Single parent job search rule will be reduced to five years.

2013: Benefit ceiling imposed. Limits the maximum amount of benefits a household can receive to £26,000 per year for a family. Phased launch of universal credit begins.

2015: Conservatives form majority government. Four-year benefit freeze launched. This meant that from 2016 the value of benefits remained at the level of 2015, allowing inflation to systematically lower the value of benefits.

2016: Benefit ceiling lowered to £23,000 a year in London and £20,000 elsewhere.

2017: Two-child limit on benefits introduced. Universal credit applicants will no longer receive additional support for a third or subsequent child. Single parent job search rule will be reduced to three years. Single parents should prepare for work when their youngest is one or two years old.

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Figures from the charity Child Poverty Action Group show that last year there were 3.9 million children living in poverty in the UK, more than a quarter of all children, or eight in a classroom of 30.

Linking growing divisions in society to the decade of austerity imposed by conservative-led governments, the IFS said the rise in poverty for children living in single-parent families “reflects the declines in the real value of state benefits in the United States.” the years from 2011 to 2019”.

Among the support cuts that have hit single mothers the most include the benefit cap, the four-year benefit freeze between 2016 and 2020, the two-child cap and a reduction in the age of the youngest child when single parents have to look for work. .

Table of food insecurity

Before 2008, single parents could claim social assistance benefits until their youngest child was 16 years old, or 19 years of age in full-time education. After changes first introduced by the last Labor government and made considerably stricter by the Conservative-led coalition, this age limit was repeatedly lowered. Now single parents are expected to prepare for work when their youngest turns one, and then have a job from the age of three.

“It definitely increases child poverty,” said Morag Treanor, a professor of inequality between children and families at Heriot-Watt University. “Single parents don’t have the security to build what it takes to look for work until they get their kids to school or good childcare. It is very harmful, it is distressing and it has an impact on the mothers and the children.”

As households across the country experienced the worst inflation shock since the 1980s, charities warned that single mothers were taking a heavier toll on rising energy prices and the rising cost of a weekly store.

Victoria Benson, the director of Gingerbread, the single-parent charity, said: “The pandemic and the cost of living crisis have made their lives much worse, and the social security system just doesn’t provide the necessary level of support. †

She said the charity had heard of a single mother who doesn’t eat when her children are with their father, of a mother who ate nothing but a single sandwich for three days because she was out of money, and food spoils in refrigerators. because it is prohibitively expensive to use electricity.

“This government urgently needs to do more,” she said.

Single parents have visited a food bank more often. Photo: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

Separate research shared exclusively with the Guardian by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed the challenge faced by single mothers and found that single parents were more likely to experience food insecurity amid the cost of living – as many as 70% were hungry and skip meals over compared to 55% for non-single parents.

In a survey last month of about 4,000 low-income people, the poverty charity said as many as 40% were unable to keep their homes warm, compared to 31% for two-parent families. Single parents more often had new debts, visited a food bank and had no bath, shower or basic toiletries.

The IFS, which will publish a broader report on poverty and inequality later this month, also noted flat progress in reducing absolute poverty rates for the children of single parents, in addition to rising relative levels. Defined as income below a fixed poverty line, adjusted for inflation and family size, it suggested this was unusual after years of steady gains in the early 2000s.

“Single parents with a low income are especially dependent on benefits. These cuts to benefits have offset rising labor incomes in recent years, which have been large for single parents,” it said.

George Osborne
Experts said the benefit cap introduced by George Osborne was one of the biggest causes of financial loss for single mothers. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Experts said the benefit cap, first imposed in 2013, and the four-year benefit freeze were among the biggest causes of financial loss for single mothers. Launched by former Chancellor George Osborne as a crackdown on those he claimed “lived a life” on public aid, the benefit cap limits total benefits, including for housing costs, to £20,000 a year for families outside London and £23,000 in the capital, regardless of the needs of the family.

Official figures published last month showed that 67% of capped households, or about 80,000, are single-parent families.

Alison Garnham, the chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said: “This alarming survey is a wake-up call showing the need for additional support for families with children in response to the cost of living.

“It’s no surprise that child poverty rates for single-parent families are rising rapidly after the harsh effects of years of benefits and freezes, and without shock absorbers to cushion the inevitable rising cost of living.”

A government spokesman said the living wage had been raised significantly to £9.50 an hour, access to free school meals expanded and universal credit would reimburse claimants up to 85% of childcare costs.

“We recognize that people are struggling with rising prices and that is why this year we are protecting the eight million most vulnerable families with at least £1,200 in direct payments.”

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