Guest blog: Gingerbread
It has become normal for single parents to be forced to rely on credit to pay for essentials like food, clothing and housing simply because they do not have enough money coming in to meet their basic living costs. Before COVID-19 hit, around half of the UK’s two million single parents lived in poverty and research by Gingerbread and StepChange revealed that over two thirds of single parents were living with problem debt.
COVID-19 exacerbated this problem, with lone parents hit with increased living costs and suffering further cuts to their income. This has pushed many further into the red. It’s a stark truth that most families will be worse off due to COVID-19, however, single parents face a particularly severe financial hit. For this group – who were already at a higher risk of poverty - COVID-19 carries a ‘triple penalty’.
Many single parents have lost a fifth of their income due to being furloughed, at the same time as they have been forced to find extra money to cover the costs associated with looking after children not attending school (food, utilities, home-schooling equipment etc). These two impacts are compounded by a third hit in the form of reduced (or stopped) child maintenance payments - money that is owed to children and is essential for many single parent families to make ends meet.
This is because the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) is running a reduced service during the pandemic, which means it won’t be chasing non-payment or taking enforcement action and will instead be allowing paying parents to reduce or stop payments based on ‘verbal evidence’ alone. This is an open door for non-resident parents to stop paying maintenance and will put single parents (90% of whom are women) under more financial strain. Given that poverty and debt were already the norm for so many single parents and their children, the consequences of this triple penalty will be stark to say the least.
It's no surprise that Turn2Us’ research has found that single parent families face the most acute financial and social pressures due to the coronavirus pandemic. A budget of £500 a month is not even close to being adequate for families – yet this is what almost half (42%) of single parents anticipate they will be living on for the foreseeable future. Without proper support, single parent families will be forced to skip meals, cut back on essentials and fall further into debt just to get by. This cannot be allowed to happen.
The Government must step-in and temporarily fill the shortfall for single parents not receiving child maintenance. The vast majority of these payments (92%) are worth less than £100 per week, while three quarters (74%) are worth less than £60 per week. Covering these payments would be a drop in the ocean in the context of the wider COVID-19 measures – and while these are inconsequential sums for government, these payments can be the difference between having food on the table or not for single parent families.
Child maintenance is not the only area which needs addressing, the benefit cap must be suspended. The benefit cap has a disproportionate impact on single parents and their children – 72% of households currently impacted by the benefit cap are headed by a single parent. During COVID-19, the two main routes out of the cap – finding work or moving homes – are effectively off limits, leaving thousands of single parent families locked into the cap.
The suspension (or better yet, removal) of the cap is all the more important in the context of the wider social security measures currently on the table. The benefit cap covers most of the social security programmes single parents utilise – such as Universal Credit (UC), Child Benefit and Housing Benefit. Therefore, any increase in base payments (such as the UC increase of £1000 a year) will simply push more single parents into the cap, and will result in the most vulnerable families losing out once more. Gingerbread supports Child Poverty Action Group’s campaign to increase Child Benefit by £10 per week on the condition that the benefit cap is removed for the same period, and backs Shelter’s campaign to suspend the cap in the longer term.
It is not right that the most vulnerable families continue to be unfairly impacted by the coronavirus crisis. The Government needs to step in and take urgent action.
Author: Joe Richardson, Research and Policy Officer at Gingerbread – the charity supporting single parent families to live secure, happy and fulfilling lives