One Parent Families Scotland Discussing Single parents and the cost-of-living crisis
In many ways, it feels like enthusiasm for talking about the cost-of-living crisis has waned. Amid other major world events and political dramas at home, it’s hard to keep the public, the media, or elected representatives gripped by the same issue for any length of time. Yet for low-income families, there is no choice to turn away or simply ‘get used to’ a life of barely surviving month-to-month.
Last September, we at One Parent Families Scotland published research based on a survey and focus groups with single parents about their experiences of rising living costs. The findings were, in a word, disturbing.
Parents – almost all mums – told us they were starving themselves and living off toast so that their children could eat properly; that they were washing themselves down over the sink so that their children could get a bath; that they had to explain to their children why they could no longer join their friends to take part in clubs or activities because there wasn’t any money to spare.
Above all, the mental strain of living this way was crushing:
“I am constantly on edge and my chest is always heavy. I have panic attacks every day and I never have a peaceful moment. I have severe anxiety. It’s hard to be social to talk to people and sometimes I have a fear of going outside…”
- Single mum (Living Without a Lifeline, 2022)
Over a year has passed since we released our report, but sadly our local services are not seeing many signs of improvement. Single parents are still struggling with energy costs. Rents are on the rise, creating an impossible situation for private renters amidst a shortage of social housing. Many parents are overwhelmed by debts built up over the last couple of years which are decimating their already-low incomes.
“In the winter it’s absolutely Baltic. I’m in a wooden house. Last year I had my heater on 13 hours a day because it was just so cold and I had a newborn baby. I’m still in debt with my gas, so I’m refusing to put my heaters on until I’ve paid that debt.”
- Single mum of 4 (September 2023)
Numerous pieces of research confirm that single parent households have been among the hardest hit by the cost-of-living crisis. This was the result of disparities that existed well before this crisis: single parents are the household type most likely to be in debt, least likely to have savings, more likely to be homeless, least likely to own their own home, most likely to be facing in-work poverty in low-wage, lower-hours jobs, less likely to be employed than mums in couples, and even less so than dads.
These problems are only compounded for those who face multiple inequalities, which is the case for many single parent families. For example, single parents are more likely than couple parents to be from black (9%) and mixed ethnic groups (3%), and are more than twice as likely to be disabled (33%) and are more likely to have a disabled child (35%).
The odds are stacked against many single parent families. Yet cuts to social security like the Benefit Cap, the two-child limit, and the lower rate of Universal Credit for under 25s have also disproportionately penalised these same families – counter to the logic that social security should be there to help people when they need it most.
In the 21st Century, in a country as rich as the United Kingdom, in a country run by millionaires, we should all be disturbed by this picture. Some synonyms for “disturb”: distress, agitate, unsettle, stir up. All appropriate responses to being confronted with the reality of entrenched inequality and injustice around us, and ones we could use a lot more. Get stirred up, get disturbed, and then let’s do something about it.
There are many statistics regarding single parents that I could ring off, but perhaps the most important one to remember is that around 9 in 10 single parent households are headed by women.
What this means is that in most cases, women in separated families still bear the weight of the majority of childcare responsibilities – and costs. One in two single parent families are receiving no child maintenance payments at all, while just a third have an arrangement that’s paid in full; an area into which we are embarking on some in-depth research.
What this also means is that every shocking fact about the inequalities facing single parents and their children is also a shocking fact about the gender inequality which persists in Scotland and the UK. Becoming a parent reduces women’s income and labour market participation, whereas it increases men’s. This is the case for women in couples and it’s even starker for single mums.
Perhaps the greatest possible change that can be made to achieve gender equality in this country is to equalise the distribution of caring responsibilities between women and men (starting by increasing paid paternity leave), as well as breaking down the barriers to work for those who have caring responsibilities (by developing a flexible, fairer labour market and an affordable childcare infrastructure that works for families).
Alongside this, it’s essential to redress the systemic inequalities embedded into our economic system, which must include the introduction of a progressive tax system.
These same structural changes would transform the lives of single parents and their children. A reminder, if we needed one, that child poverty is parents’ poverty is women’s poverty. Only by recognising and addressing these inextricable interconnections in national and local policymaking and delivery will the radical change which is so badly needed be realised.
One Parent Families Scotland
As part of the policy team at One Parent Families Scotland, Caitlin Logan is focused on ensuring that single parents’ voices are heard by decisionmakers and that campaigns for positive change are shaped by single parents and their families’ needs.
Caitlin has worked for OPFS in the communications and policy teams since 2019. Her other experience includes communications roles in the children, young people and families sector, as well as in journalism covering topics linked to equalities and social justice.