The Punitive Impact of Universal Credit on the Life Chances of Single Parents with Children Under 5

Date Posted: Monday 13th May 2019

AusteritySocial Security

Over the past 10 years, single parents have faced increasingly rigid conditions if they are to receive welfare support. This is particularly in relation to job-seeking requirements. Those with young children are now the hardest hit. Up until 2008 single parents with children under 16 were not required to work. However, after 2008 the limit was gradually lowered, to 12 and then 7 under the Labour government, 5 under the Coalition government, and lowered even further to those with children over 3 years old under Universal Credit introduced by the present government. And yet single parents with children under 5 who are on Income Support are not required to seek employment. 

Single parents can be sanctioned for not taking work, even if there is little work/childcare in their area that fits in with their families’ wellbeing. This can be a two fold blow for those also subject to the benefit cap. Given that one parent families are more likely than ever to live in rented accommodation they are more likely to be subject to the benefit cap in high rent areas. They could escape this if they were working over 16 hours a week and yet it is here that the intersection of regulations again proves discriminatory to single parents with children under 5.

Those single parents on Income Support with children under 5 are in principle not required to have to take employment. However if they are benefit capped and living in a high rent area, they must find work over 16 hours whatever the age of the children or move away from family, friends, schools, social networks because they won’t be able to afford the rental difference. Thus a reality is that those with children under 2 whether they are on Universal Credit or Income Support might be obliged to work over 16 hours a week or have to move. These are hard facts.     

“Most capped single parent households have very young children. Under legacy benefits, three-quarters (76 %) of these capped single parents’ youngest children were of pre-school age (under five years) and therefore not subject to full job-seeking conditions under work-related benefit rules, despite the government’s intentions with the benefit cap. A third (31 %) of capped single parents had a youngest child aged two or under.” (Gingerbread, 2018)

Amber Rudd is presently reviewing the roll out of Universal Credit, in particular the impact that it has on women.  There has been very little press detail on how it impacts on single parent mothers with children under 5, nor on the conflicting requirements to be seeking work under Universal Credit when a child is 3 but not until a child is 5 under Income Support.

When Job Seekers Allowance was rolled out, the welfare of children was better protected, not least because children were of school age before a single parent was required to work. Austerity has put paid to those protections. The Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the roll out of Universal Credit since that time, has placed employment over the welfare of the child. Moreover, the closing of over 1000 Children’s Centres has meant that quality, accessible childcare in disadvantaged areas for the Under 5s is at crisis point. No parent should be forced out to work before a child is of school age in such an environment.

Yet another pernicious consequence is that the roll out of Universal Credit together with the managed migration from Income Support will mean that single parents will be ill prepared for moving into employment when their children are three.  They will have less time to parent their children, less time to study and train, less time to volunteer and develop vocational and non-vocational networks, less time to develop informal childcare support networks.

The Social Security Advisory Committee understood that support networks helped single parents take control of their lives but that they “were largely invisible to DWP.”

Parents are more likely to take up and remain in work if supported in their caring roles. Embedding children’s welfare in to the welfare delivery of Universal Credit would help Job Centre Plus advisors to better understand and support the informal networks that sustain and nurture single parents and their children. Retaining the Income Support regulation that single parents with children under 5 should not be required to take up employment, nor be benefit capped, would go some way to stemming the rapid deterioration in the life chances of one parent families.




Sue Cohen is a member of the Women's Budget Group Management Committee and Honorary Research Associate at University of Bristol