Rachel Limage with her six-year-old daughter. Image: Supplied
A single mother on universal credit feels “penalised” and “scrutinised” because she cannot find work to fit around childcare for her two young children.
Far from alone, she worries the situation will only get worse for single parents on universal credit as the government pushes its agenda to drive people back to work.
It is expanding free childcare provision but only working parents will benefit, igniting fears among campaigners that people will be forced into unsuitable work or face sanctions.
This is the situation 28-year-old Rachel Limage finds herself in after she had to give up her job this summer when she moved from Bristol to Brighton.
She was working remotely but had to commute back and forth regularly which became challenging, especially when her six-year-old daughter’s school holidays started. A place at a holiday club now costs an average of £157 a week, according to children’s charity Coram Family and Childcare.
Limage, who also has a three-year-old, said: “I’m banging my head against a brick wall here. There isn’t a solution. It is really quite impossible. The reality is that employers still aren’t flexible enough at the moment, and a lot of them still aren’t open to working from home. I feel disheartened.”
UK parents face some of the highest childcare costs in the world. The average cost of putting a child into a nursery part-time is just under £8,000. For some parents, particularly single parents, work is not a financially viable option.
“I was in a couple and on universal credit,” Limage said, when asked about how jobcentres have approached her situation. “And now being on my own as a single parent, I am much more penalised and looked down upon and scrutinised than I was previously when we were in a couple we were both working.”
Single parents are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to parents who are in a couple, according to charity Gingerbread. Around 14% want to work more hours but cannot find anything suitable, compared with 8% of parents in a couple.
Limage was offered a job but it wasn’t flexible enough to balance alongside childcare, so she is actively searching for more roles.
“It feels now like I have to jump through a lot more hoops to get the support I need,” Lineage said. “I’m unemployed but really actively trying to look for work, and universal credit doesn’t even cover my rent. It just feels very hard.”
Around nine in 10 universal credit claimants are unable to afford the essentials like food and heating their homes, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. They are, on average, around £35 short of the money they need to live each week.
“It feels like your life is scrutinised in terms of the decisions you’re making,” Limage added. “I’m employable. I had a good education. And I still feel in a position of being quite hard done by in terms of trying to get the support that I need.”
Currently, all children aged three to four are eligible for 30 hours of free childcare a week – but only if their parents are working 16 hours each week. The government is set to expand the free childcare scheme to parents of all children over nine-months old, but the same criteria will apply meaning non-working families will continue to miss out on access to childcare.
A recent report from Coram and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that the government’s planned £4 billion investment in childcare will disproportionately benefit higher-income families unless it is retargeted to help vulnerable children.
Universal credit claimants can get 85% of their childcare covered – but, again, parents have to be working or have a job offer to get this help. Limage feels that this undervalues the role of single parents and does not reflect the challenges they face in finding work.
“I feel devalued,” she said. “It’s assuming the only thing you’re good for is working. Looking after your kids comes secondary to that. You wouldn’t scrutinise a mum who wasn’t on universal credit in this way if they hadn’t gone back to work full time.
“In fact, people would probably think they’ve gone back to work too soon after kids. It overlooks the job that people are doing in terms of raising kids.”
Maggie Gordon-Walker, who is the director of local parenting group Mothers Uncovered which has supported Limage, agreed. She said: “It doesn’t value the important work that people, and it’s often mothers, are doing raising children.
“I see so many mothers who don’t realise the value of their own work, because society tells them they’re not important and we’re only commodities. We’re only useful if we’re making money for the economy. It’s completely skewed.”
The government is pushing a drive to get people into work, with chancellor Jeremy Hunt announcing in the Spring Budget that sanctions would be “strengthened” so that jobcentre work coaches have greater powers to penalise universal credit claimants – including if they fail to take up a job.
Campaigners have warned this could have a damaging impact on people, like Limage, who genuinely want to work but are unable to find anything suitable to fit around commitments such as childcare.
Victoria Benson, chief executive of Gingerbread, said: “There are nearly two million single parents in the UK and they are really valuable to our economy. We know single parents want to work but they need flexibility in order to do so.
“This government must work with employers to make flexible work the norm and remove barriers to accessing childcare. Without these changes single parents will continue to struggle and our economy will miss out on their skills and talents.”
Lauren Fabianski, head of campaigns and communications at Pregnant then Screwed, said: “Flexible working is is absolutely vital for shifting the needle on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
“Today, we have more roles available than ever before, and yet 1.7 million women are currently not able to access employment due to childcare barriers, and 870,000 mothers would clock up more hours if they could make it work. Mothers need flexible working. Today, women are twice as likely to work flexibly than men are, and if women can access flexible working, then they are twice as likely to remain in the workforce post-pregnancy. It’s good for people, and it’s good for business – it really is a no brainer.”
Limage hopes to be in work soon, but she worries that others will face worse experiences if the government continues imposing policies to push people into work. She agrees that policymakers should work with employers to make jobs more flexible for single parents, and for childcare to be more affordable.
“I’ve only been a single mom for about a year,” she said. “I’ve only just recently realised just how challenging it is to try and find things that fit into my life at the moment. Finding a job and finding childcare really is so difficult, and without having a support network around you it’s completely impossible.”
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