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Childcare costs and lack of flexible work mean UK single parents fare less well than other Europeans After her marriage ended, Joanne Jacobs*, 40, moved from the US to London, where some of her family live. She now lives with her three-year-old daughter and works full-time as a consultant.
She has joined the growing ranks of lone parents in employment in the UK — up to 69 per cent in the first quarter of this year, from 44 per cent in 1996.
This increase is in part the result of targeted government policy initiatives. In the late 1990s, the British government introduced the New Deal for Lone Parents programme which aimed to reduce unemployment by providing training, subsidised employment and voluntary work to the unemployed.
Then in 2003 the government introduced working tax credits, a means-tested benefit for low-income workers which helped to top-up wages.
Subsequent caps on unemployment benefits until a claimant is working 16 hours a week have moved even more people, including lone parents, into the labour market. But despite the increase of lone parents in the UK joining the workforce, they still fare far less well than their European counterparts.
In 2018 the employment rate for lone parents in the UK was 10 percentage points lower than that of the general population, according to official statistics released in April. This is the widest gap in the EU, bar Malta. The poor employment rate for single parents is particularly striking given the UK’s stronger labour market, resulting in a wider gap in the UK between single parents and the general population than in the rest of the EU.
Across the eurozone last year, 74 per cent of single parents were in employment, 5 percentage points higher than in the UK. In Germany, the employment rate of lone parents was 77 per cent. In the UK lone parents in low-paid jobs and those managing to maintain a better paid professional career face significant challenges. Higher childcare costs and a lack of flexible work contribute to making the UK’s employment rate of lone parents the lowest of any major EU economy. It ranks 22 among the 28 EU countries. Furthermore, regardless of whether they are in work or not, there are more single parents in poverty in the UK than in any other EU country.
Childcare issues A lack of flexible and affordable childcare contributes to lone parents staying out of the workforce and remaining in poverty. According to a survey from the UK’s Department for Education, nearly half of the non-working lone mothers do not have a job because of childcare or flexibility issues. Nearly two in three non-working single mothers in the UK say they would work if affordable good-quality childcare was available.
Ms Jacobs, for example, despite a good income, cannot afford to live alone in a home near her daughter’s school. To make ends meet she is considering living with another single mother to share childcare and housing costs. Childcare is needed, she says, “not just for the day-to-day during office hours, but if you have to travel for work, if you are ill, or would just like to spend an hour a week in a gym class or socialise every now and then away from the house”.
Pettrina Keogh was forced to move to reduce childcare costs. Currently working for a tech company, she became a single parent when her son was two. When she and her partner split up both were in full-time work and employing a nanny outside nursery hours. Ms Keogh’s partner continued to help with mortgage payments, but once they decided to sell their house and cut financial ties, she needed to fund a mortgage and childcare on her own.
“Continuing with costly full-time childcare once I only had my own salary and minimal child maintenance to rely on became impossible,” she says. “How was I going to reduce childcare costs unless I moved close to my family who were at the other end of country?”