Single Parents and the Benefits Cap

At 13, Scarlet Maria knows nothing about the government’s new benefit cap, which has just removed a precious £50 a week from her mother’s already stretched household budget.

She does, however, know what poverty feels like.

This benefit cap isn’t just a spreadsheet of facts and figures. It is affecting children in ways people like Theresa May, a wealthy public figure, could never comprehend. Food is sparse, supplies are low and poverty is a large leap from her cushy seat at Number 10.

For single parents struggling to find work, the recent benefit cap is forcing them to choose between a roof over their heads and basic essentials. With parents trying to survive these cuts, how has this lack of money impacted the child’s welfare?

On the 7th of November, the new government set the benefits cap for unemployed families, including single-parent homes. The current cap is set at £23,000 in London for families, and £15,410 for single people without children. For some families that is a loss of up to £115 a week for rent money and essentials.

Although the cap is affecting thousands, one North London family in particular has struggled to make ends meet for a while now: the mother is unemployed, and both children are in full-time education. Without the extra support of the government, Helen fears that her rent will not be fully covered, and her children will go without food.

In Helen’s neighbourhood, blocks of flats with washing hanging on the balconies taint the prestigious glow of the tall Victorian houses that stand adjacent. Not all houses are equal – the a 49-year-old single mother knows this.

She lives in one of these flats and openly admits that she has always struggled financially whilst trying to take care of two children. She is always looking for work in her industry, but times are hard.

“Yes, being a single parent has really affected me and it does, whether I am working or not,” she said.

“There is never enough income when you’re a lone parent and also the absence of maintenance payments is a big blow”

Gingerbread’s Policy Officer confirms this struggle: “Parents tell us they are doing all they can to find work, but all too often jobs and available childcare just don’t match up – single parents with toddlers can’t simply work a night shift or at weekends.”

Meanwhile, Helen sits watching television in the living room, wrapped in a faux fur blanket to keep warm, the benefits cap still on her mind.

“The benefit cap regarding housing benefit is unfair, it is not in line with the rents asked for by landlords in London,” she said.

Rental prices in London are high: Helen pays around £1400 per month for a small two bedroom flat, even though three people are living in the property. Many parents are in a similar situation, having to live in smaller houses or flats whilst finding ways to accommodate their children by turning living rooms into bedrooms, or sharing with others in the family.

The Department of Work and Pensions states that around 244,000 children will suffer because of these benefit changes.

Helen’s youngest daughter of thirteen sits on the other sofa in the room, silently typing away on her laptop.

Eyes firmly directed at the floor, she confesses that school was difficult.

“The people at school brought the topic up a lot- they would ask why I didn’t have a father living with me but I got on with my work,” she said.

Living at home with only one source of income is taking its toll: Her pajamas are well worn and a little too small for her teenage frame.

“I probably feel I don’t have enough clothes – especially now, I have to wear my mum’s old clothes and find what I can. I didn’t notice until I was older, but just the fact there wasn’t a lot of things around the house and not much food”

Their pet cat wanders in, jumping onto the sofa next to her. She begins stroking it and continues: “I have always had to entertain myself because my mum wasn’t around a lot, it was hard to make friends, and I don’t  talk to my dad — I probably wouldn’t talk to him, it doesn’t interest me”

As a thirteen year old, she isn’t aware of the recent benefits cap, but is aware that money and basic household supplies have grown sparse.

“If the government needs the money for other things, then I guess it’s reasonable – but not the best move,” she said.

Only a month ago, this family was set to become homeless because of the cost of renting in London, and this young girl is just grateful to have a roof over her head.

The eldest daughter, 24, returns home from University and sits down to eat and watch television. She looks tired, overworked.

“I think having a single parent has effected me more than my sister,” she said.

“When I was young my mum worked full-time and I barely got to see her, so I had to sleep over at my friends’ houses a lot”

Money is a troubled subject with her, and had a knock-on effect to her finances.

“I struggle with money, even now. I can’t afford to pay my bills and do a Masters, but I am doing whatever I can to make ends meet. I babysit and I have an interview on Saturday for another job.

“It’s really taking its toll but I hope in the end my Master’s degree will help me to find a better job”

She does, however, remember when times were worse.

“Yeah, I remember when my mum became bankrupt, she struggled to find another place to live when she could not longer afford the rent. It was a very upsetting time and we were so scared that we would be out on the street…”

A total of 64,000 homes in the UK will be hit by the cap, while nearly two-thirds of these will be single parent homes. The benefits cuts throughout the UK have been capped at £13,400.

With such a drastic cut in benefits, the question we have to ask is: How will this will effect the single parent’s already struggling to make ends meet, and their children?  

But these benefit cuts don’t only affect London based families, Gingerbread’s Policy Officer Laura Dewar said.

“The new benefit cap is likely to drive more single parents into poverty. Many will have to choose between the roof over their children’s heads and other essentials such as food and heating.”

Another family — a single mother with three children — live in the North West on a peninsula in a small town named Barrow-In-Furness. Twenty per cent of people here in Barrow rely on benefits to live and this family, the Gallaghers, are no different.

The three children, brothers, have always known the cost of living.

While only one brother currently lives at home, the other two are familiar with the struggles of a single-parent household. Many children don’t leave home until their late 20s or early 30s. The Gallaghers have lived in Barrow all their life, with the eldest son now living in London.

Damien, 28, the eldest, knew his family struggled with finances all along.

“I knew that my situation was different. I kind of felt that money — and the lack of it — was the biggest difference, due to the fact that there was only one source income coming in.”

Most single parents on income support or other benefits are able to get free school meals for their children.

“I remember having free school meals and when my uniform was damaged my mum would repair it rather than buy new ones,” he said.

“My mother had to work a part time job at a local retail store during school hours, as we were too young to take ourselves there and look after ourselves afterwards, so she had to be around whenever we weren’t at school.

“I can’t imagine a part time job in a retail store pays much towards the mortgage, bills, or all the other expenses.” He winced as he said this.

With a smile, though, he talks about the good to have come from his mother’s situation.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot from that experience. I know when not to spend money if times are hard, and that I should ration what I do have in case of a rainy day.”

Despite Gallagher’s outlook, this new reduction in funds could be the tipping point for many single parents, causing many of them to become homeless. Both of these families have been close to homelessness, and know of the emotional and physical struggle it takes to get back from that edge.

Gingerbread says: Those set to be hit by the cap are calling Gingerbread panic-stricken, desperate to find a way to protect their children. For all the government’s talk about work incentives, it has nothing to say on the families who can’t find work and the devastating impact it will have on children who face losing their homes or being pushed in poverty.”

— Sophie Ogden

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