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The Scottish Government has set demanding targets for the reduction of child poverty in Scotland - that by 2030 less than 10% of children will live in relative poverty. This aspiration is one that will only be achieved if we recognise that the marginalisation of certain groups deepens hardship and reduces life chances, perpetuating a vicious cycle of economic and social exclusion. The risk of poverty for children is not shared equally. Children of single parents; BME children, the children of migrant parents, disabled children or those living in a home with a disabled adult have an increased risk of living in financial hardship and that simply isn’t right. This can no longer be ignored, there is a need for greater recognition of the structural sources of poverty and policies need to address these. The participation of single parents and others with lived experience is crucial to give policy makers a deep understanding of the real issues and solutions.
In Scotland single parent families are 29% of families (167,100 families). We know that a quarter of children in Scotland live in poverty, and as a rich society we should find this unacceptable. The Poverty and Inequality Commission has highlighted that 37% of those children live in a single parent family. However, there is nothing inherent about single parent families which results in such a high proportion of their children living in poverty. At OPFS we know through working with thousands of single parents each year that they should be recognised for the remarkable job they do.
The toxic combination of the benefits freeze, universal credit, sanctions, the benefit cap, the 2-child policy and the requirement to work has had a devastating impact on single parents, especially those with children under 5 years. By 2021 single parents and their children will lose a fifth of their income due to welfare reform - an average of £5,250 a year. The predicted increase in child poverty for children in single parent households to over 62% will have a devastating impact on the lives and prospects of so many children. The policies that penalise single parent families – conditionality & sanctions, the working age benefits freeze, the two-child limit and the benefits cap should be reversed.
The UK, one of the richest countries in the world is not only allowing some of the youngest children in our care to go hungry, but actively putting policies in place enabling that to happen. We need a social security system that prevents poverty, treats people with dignity and respect and supports everyone to flourish. That’s why Scottish Government’s pledge to use its devolved powers to introduce a new benefit for children in lower income families is so vital. Given the size of the cuts children are facing, the potential to increase the incomes of families across Scotland, both where parents are in and out of work will be immense.
Most single parents want to take up paid work, if its in the best interests of their family – but not for in-work poverty wages; not in jobs that fail to acknowledge their skills, education and talents; and not in jobs that made time-poverty so problematic because unsocial hrs mean they see less of their children. Low-earning single parents working full-time are still unable to earn enough to provide their family with a basic lifestyle.
Single parents not only have less time seeing their children, the ‘work first’ approach of the UK government means they have no time for further education, voluntary work or training for a better job. A lack of qualifications can hold single parents back from fulfilling their potential; curtailing their ability to find employment, limiting their earning capability, and reducing opportunities for progression.
More action is needed to support those single parents who want to take up training or education and enable single parents to move into sustainable employment. That’s why the Scottish Governments Fair Start employment support service should provide programmes tailored for single parents. The current trajectory of welfare reform stifles their job prospects and limits the potential financial gains to the government. Single Parents need access to flexible work that pays at least the real Living Wage and decent affordable housing.
Access to affordable, flexible, high quality childcare is so important for single parents and that’s why OPFS has developed a model of high-quality flexible childcare solutions to give all parents greater flexibility with training, education and employment and achieve work-life balance. Flexible Childcare Services Scotland, set up by OPFS will further develop and expand the flexible childcare models we have established across Scotland.
The majority of single parents are women, and many have experienced domestic abuse, so gender inequality is a key issue. Across Europe, single parents do better in societies where there is greater equality between men and women. A recent UNICEF report puts Britain near the bottom for children's wellbeing. Some rushed to say that single parenthood is the cause. However, in those same tables, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark are at the top for child wellbeing. Yet they are all in the top ranks for the highest number of children brought up by single parents and also rank high in adult happiness charts. These are countries whose policies over many decades have dramatically reduced child poverty. Whether with married parents, cohabiting parents or one parent, nearly all Nordic children grow up in a world where they live approximately the same kind of lives. Poor children in unequal Britain - and many single-parent children are in low income families - live in a world apart.
Government has the potential to change the lives, not just of single parents, but of a generation of children whose ambition and potential must not be allowed to be wasted in poverty. This is the challenge we face - to hold government at all levels to account to implement policies that will eradicate child poverty and ensure people’s rights are put at the centre of policy and practice.