Going it alone

In November 2011, the EU highlighted the increased risk of poverty and social exclusion faced by single mothers, and called for action by member states. Satwat Rehman examines the issues facing lone parents and their families in Scotland.*

There is a world of difference between public perception and reality when it comes to lone parent families.

When the EU published its report into the situation of single mothers in November 2011, the reaction in Scotland was illuminating. Issues became personalised and fingers were pointed. The conclusion was clear: for many people, lone parents represent a problem.

Yet single parents are not a homogenous group. They represent a range of family, economic and social backgrounds: most did not choose lone parenthood but were left, through death, divorce, or other circumstances, holding the baby. For the vast majority, their children's welfare is paramount. Inaccurate stereotyping is one of the most insidious and damaging barriers lone parents face, while those who perpetuate the myths only intensify already low self-confidence and reinforce the sense that positive change is impossible.

The facts

Today, almost a quarter of families in Scotland have only one parent. Contrary to prevailing assumptions, less than 2% of lone parents are teenagers; more than half work more than 15 hours a week; and far from relying on benefits, lone parents enter employment at the same rate as other comparable groups.

However, they are twice as likely to veer between work and unemployment; a third of lone mothers are depressed; and lone parent families are more likely to face poor health. The biggest issue is poverty: over a third have a gross weekly income of £200 or less. The 2010 Growing Up in Scotland survey found over half of children aged two to three in lone parent families were persistently living in poverty.

Lone parents face significant barriers in the labour market. Many lack confidence, especially those who have experienced domestic abuse or an acrimonious divorce. Some feel socially isolated and may lack the practical and emotional support of family and friends after a relationship has ended. For lone mothers, educational attainment is often lower, as they may have interrupted their education or professional training because of the time and financial constraints of bringing up children alone.

Affordable childcare is a particular concern in Scotland, where, unlike England and Wales, there is no legal obligation to make childcare available to working parents. Out-of-school care is generally only available at primary school age and parents may rightly feel uncomfortable leaving someone under 16, for whom they are legally responsible, at home alone, especially during school holidays. Jobs may require an early start, a late finish, weekend working or variable working patterns, making it difficult, if not impossible, to find childcare. Many lone parents are confined to low-paid employment that matches school hours - which does little to lift children out of poverty.

The transition from benefits to work can also be precarious. Expenses such as lunches, travel and work clothes, the rapid withdrawal of Housing Benefit and the aggressive pursuit of outstanding debt once a parent leaves Income Support, mean not everyone is better off in employment, despite what the government may say.

Legislative changes can have a major impact. The Welfare Reform Bill going through Westminster is likely to have a negative effect on lone parent families throughout the UK, while freezing Child Benefit and other tax credits and the cut in childcare support through working tax credit changes, have reduced the spending power of low-income families just as rises in fuel and food costs have played havoc with family budgets.

The UK Government's commitment to force lone parents whose youngest child is over five into work will see parents jumping through rigorous Jobseeker's Allowance hoops, chasing too few jobs and competing with applicants who have better qualifications and more recent job experience.

Proposed charges for the government's statutory child support scheme will divert money intended for children into government coffers, while reducing Local Housing Allowance has cut the choice of decent housing for families. Of course, we have to make tough choices, but the poorest - among them lone parents - appear to be paying the highest price of all.

Making the difference

Yet with the right support, lone parents can offer a great deal. What makes the difference?

When One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS) www.opfs.org.uk consulted lone parents, the consensus was that prevention is much more effective than resolving problems later, and giving children 'the best start in life' is very important. Many thought specialist support into paid work was required, with varied recruitment methods and the value of volunteering recognised. They saw the key worker model as crucial, especially as part of a wider network linking services. They saw maintaining good mental health and managing stress as significant in promoting wellbeing, especially for those living on Income Support.

For many, moving into employment is not just about money, but also the practicalities of having the sole responsibility of managing home and work. Pushing lone parents into low-paid jobs that do not fit with their caring responsibilities will result in them giving up work. The escalating cost of childcare and lack of good quality provision, including for children aged 11 and over, mean some are unable to enter employment, while a lack of flexible childcare in the home can prevent parents from working unsocial hours. Addressing these issues is the best route for helping lone parents into work when the time is right for them and their family.

Employers have a key role: offering flexible, family friendly employment can ensure a loyal and productive workforce. In practice, this may mean realistic time off work for parents to care for children, and job-sharing, flexible working hours or home working.

Comparing the poverty risk of children in lone parent families in other countries provides food for thought. Sweden has one of the highest numbers of children in lone parent families but the lowest child poverty rate across 27 EU countries, while the UK has the second highest number but one of the highest poverty levels.

One reason is the type of welfare state in operation, with the UK's 'adult worker' model - which assumes all capable adults should be in employment irrespective of their family circumstances - failing to meet real life needs.

The 'parent worker' model more familiar in Scandinavian countries underpins policies with the assumption that families are diverse and adults should be supported as parents and workers, through good quality childcare and family-friendly employment.

The key issue for anyone bringing up a child alone is their sole responsibility for the combined roles of breadwinner and carer. The pressures that this can put on lone parents as they juggle caring for children, maintaining child contact with the absent parent, seeking/retaining employment, managing finances and so on can affect their capacity to parent. On top of this, parental and family capacity are much harder to sustain with inadequate income.

A national parenting strategy should recognise this as a unique challenge facing lone parents, and ensure that services and support fit family needs so that we can live in a society that is responsive, sympathetic, embraces diversity and does not tolerate inequality. Only then will we really be making progress.

Tracey's story

OPFS worked with Tracey who, showing considerable determination, found work as a receptionist at a recycling company. She says:

'I had been claiming Incapacity Benefit for over five years. Life was looking rather bleak because I was stuck in a rut. My lack of work and my financial circumstances had become so bad that my son and I were both affected mentally as well as physically.

The whole time we struggled, I was very aware that certain people thought I was living within the benefit system through choice. As if living in such a fashion was easier! Nothing could have been further from the truth.

As I became 'job-ready' I was invited to the Hub. These are job clubs, which include childcare, and are specifically designed for lone parents. With help, support and advice, I created my CV and began to approach job hunting in a active way.

Life is good now. The changes in my life have had a profound effect on my son. He leaves for school with his head held high - a striking change from the young carer he used to be. His attendance has improved 100%; he has improved academically and socialises with ease. Our time together is of a higher quality ... I myself feel more relaxed.

I feel like Mum. I no longer sit and wait for the light at the end of the tunnel. I switch it on myself. I'm aware of what I want in life and fully intend to live it to the max.'

* A version of this article first appeared in Children in Scotland magazine in January 2012.

About the author

Satwat Rehman has worked in the voluntary and public sectors in Scotland and England since 1989 in equalities, education, economic development/regeneration and early years. She is currently director of One Parent Families Scotland. Before that, Satwat worked for the London Borough of Camden as deputy head of Integrated Early Years where she was responsible for the development of children's centre services including welfare rights and employability support and affordable childcare initiatives.