In the UK, there are nearly two million single parents (9 out of 10 of whom are women) caring for three million children. Laura Dewar of Gingerbread, the national charity for single parent families, sets out how coronavirus is affecting these families and how the government must provide urgent support.
In the last few weeks, and in all likelihood going forward, we are seeing a huge spike in demand for Gingerbread’s services as a direct result of the Covid-19 virus. It is clear that the pandemic has had a profound impact on the lives of single parents and our charity has risen to the challenge of providing specialist support.
Single parents are twice as likely as coupled households to live in poverty, to work in low-paying, insecure work and to rely on the safety net of social security. Our immediate priority is, of course, to make sure that single parents and their children get enough money to survive and that they have the practical support to get through this crisis.
Urgent government action is needed
Within this context, Gingerbread are calling on the government to take urgent action to better protect the income and support for single parents and their children.
We are calling for:
- Emergency financial support, including access to Statutory Sick Pay (with an uprating of this benefit level) and help with paying rent for those who lose their job or face a cut in hours.
- Fast-tracked financial support, including an emergency fund to support children and to protect from homelessness, for single parents who can no longer work and are claiming universal credit.
- Speeding up the application process for new universal credit claims. Job seeking requirements in legacy and universal credit should be suspended for three months.
- Financial and practical support for single parents who are themselves self-isolating, or who are looking after children who are self-isolating.
- Targeted support for single parents and their children from money given to local authorities to help those affected by the Covid-19 virus.
It is also important to remember that single parents are likely to be feeling isolated, alone and overwhelmed – particularly while we are all being advised to take social isolation measures. They may be having to juggle a job, home schooling and making sure that the household is fed without the support of another adult in the household.
We would like to call on everyone to be mindful of this and to offer to help any single parents in their street or networks.
Looking forward: what changes are needed in our society?
In terms of the future, there are interesting developments from the crisis that could have a profound impact on work, social security and charities.
The value of social security has been eroded under austerity measures. It is interesting that the current crisis has brought into focus the inadequacy of support, with an imminent increase to the basic level of universal credit and legacy benefits. The crisis will see more households of all make ups being brought into the system.
Once the immediate impact of the crisis has been addressed, it is important that we, as a society reflect on how social security can be set at a better level to meet the needs of all households, ensuring that all members of society, including single parents and their children, can live secure, happy and fulfilling lives.
The crisis has shown the need for childcare to support key workers. Childcare is being viewed as intrinsic to allowing key staff to work. For years the sector has called on government to see childcare as part of the infrastructure of work, we are now seeing this happening. It is a constant theme, through our interaction with single parents and our research, of the high cost of and lack of availability of childcare.
When the crisis is over, we hope that the value of childcare continues to be recognised as part of the infrastructure for society and that this translates into a childcare policy that complements and supports work.
Single parents have found it hard to access flexible working, with a dire shortage of part-time and flexible roles, including access to home working. Our recent research on in-work progression shows that many single parents trade flexibility for low pay and lower quality work. The crisis has shown that within a day a whole swathe of workers can be asked to work from home. It will be important that lessons are learnt as we go forward including a move away from a standard 9-5 job model and presenteeism with the opening up of much more flexible work.
The crisis has brought into focus the previous low perceptions and poorer monetary value of certain jobs, such as caring, cleaning, childcare, supermarket retail workers and nursing – with many of these roles being done by single parents. The crisis has shown the contribution of these roles to society and they must be better valued, including how much they pay, as we go forward.
Support for charities
Finally, Gingerbread’s services have been stretched under the crisis – including our helpline and online information, our forums, the network of single parent groups, as well as calls on our policy work to try to push the government for better account to be taken of the needs of single parents and their children. Yet over the last ten years there has been far less support from central government for charities like ours.
The crisis shows that specialist support is needed quickly – and that charities like ours are in a unique position to step in and step up for our beneficiaries. Going forward, the government must provide more financial support for charities.
Gingerbread has seen a huge surge in demand for services, including single parents calls to our helpline. Please consider donating to Gingerbread to help ensure our vital services continue at this difficult time. For further information about Gingerbread, please visit our website.
Laura Dewar is Policy Officer at Gingerbread. Laura leads the organisation’s policy and parliamentary work on welfare reform including Universal Credit, the benefit cap, employment, and in-work progression, skills and training. She has more than 11 years’ experience in public affairs specialising in women, work and welfare reform.