Lone Parent Families and the Work/Life Balance

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If I had the chance to implement one policy it would be to offer greater support for single parents who are on low income and are generally struggling to manage their living. Currently in the UK, 1.9 million families are led by single parents, with 44.5% of them not in employment (1).

Such high unemployment rates among single parents could be explained by investigating several factors including the issue of childcare. Understanding the issue of childcare is crucial in this context because it is deemed as the biggest factor that prevents single parents from going into training and/or seeking employment.

Childcare has always been an issue to parents in employment regardless of their marital status. However, it has been a bigger concern for single parents that are generally left with no choice but to take the full parental responsibility for their children. The absence of their spouses/partners makes it even more difficult for them to manage work and care responsibilities considering that there are very limited sources that they could resort to in order to make sure that their children are safe and are looked after well while staying in employment.

As popular as it is among families with two parents, childcare services have been recommended to families led by single parents. However, when the cost of childcare is generally high, especially that of good quality care, single parents who are generally on low income find it hard to finance it. Being unable to meet the cost means that looking after their children themselves seems the only viable option to many single parents. Some rely on informal care from family and friends, but such option is not available to many.
The problem of expensive childcare is significant in the respect that it affects not only the parents themselves but also their children and households. Children in single parent households are more likely to live in relative poverty as studies have found that 63% of single parent families have no savings (2). Iain Duncan Smith once stated that “work is the best route out poverty”, but when a large portion of earnings is going on expensive childcare, poverty persists despite their labour market participation.

Given the prediction that child poverty level will rise over the next few years (3), tackling the issue should be taken seriously and related policy measures should be implemented. To prevent greater poverty and inequality, it will be necessary to start funding child maintenance and offering greater support for single parents.
By providing financial help and high quality, government funded childcare, we would be able to lighten the single parents’ burden of caring for their children and encourage them to join the workforce without having to worry about the cost of childcare.

We would also be able to allow them to enjoy a wider range of activities with their children and have a better quality of life.

In order to tackle the issue effectively, the benefit system needs to be reformed as well. Support for childcare from the government is currently measured based on the income. Under the new universal credit system, those who are able to pay income tax will be given more help than those who are not (4). In other words, those earn more will get more from the government than people who really need the help. To assist the population in urgent and genuine need, the benefit should be implemented universally at a lower level, with more support given via means-testing.

Alongside the support for single parents, I would scrap tax breaks for married couples. Last week David Cameron announced that the government would allow married couples to get tax breaks of up to £200 a year (5). However, this decision seems to lack consideration for the recent demographic changes.  Due to changes in family dynamic and structure, the idea of the traditional nuclear family is very much in decline and the number of non-traditional households, such as single parent households and cohabitating couples, has increased for the past years. Considering these demographic changes, the tax breaks will fail to benefit a large portion of population. Instead of being used as a mechanism to reinforce the traditional family model, tax breaks should be given to people who are genuinely in need regardless of their marital status.

Many single parents are excluded from the labour market and live in poverty due to the burden of their caring responsibilities. A key factor to be examined in this phenomenon is the issue of childcare and the cost of such services which has affected not only the single parents but also their children and the national economy. In order to tackle the issue, a relevant policy should be designed and implemented to assist this specific population which will increase the quality of life of the whole population, reduce the relative poverty and inequality in the society.

Written by Harriet Brooke, edited by Chloe Lee

[1] Independent, The Big Question: How many single parents are there, and should they be forced to work?, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/the-big-question-how-many-single-parents-are-there-and-should-they-be-forced-to-work-434358.html

[2] Gingerbread, Statistics, http://www.gingerbread.org.uk/content/365/Statistics

[3] OXFAM, OXFAM’s UK Charity Blogs, Child maintenance is crucial for single parents in the UK, http://www.oxfam.org.uk/uk-poverty-blog/blog/2013/07/child-maintenance-is-crucial-for-single-parents-in-the-uk

[4] Gingerbread, Email Chancellor George Osborne and tell him why childcare matters to you, http://www.gingerbread.org.uk/content/1903/Email-Chancellor-George-Osborne-and-tell-him-why-childcare-matters-to-you

[5] BBC News, David Cameron unveils marriage tax breaks plan, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-24309634