'I was chasing my tail': one woman's battle with in-work poverty

Poverty rates are higher in every part of the UK for single parents and their families. Melanie Lock, from London, shares her story

For Melanie Lock, the balance between running her own cleaning business, managing the long gaps between universal credit payments and looking after her 10-year-old son can often feel like too much to handle.

“You’ve got to be able to work all the hours God sends to meet the cost of living,” says the 44-year-old single mother from Sutton, south London. She has about £50 left each week after rent and bills to pay for everything from food to childcare and school uniform.

“I was always chasing my tail. Even though I have a job I could do in my sleep, I have these other pressures going on and my son to look after. It affects you mentally, makes you paranoid, and you don’t know when the money is coming in,” she says.

Poverty rates are higher in every area of the UK for single parents and their families. London, despite its status as the economic heart of the country and the home of the super-rich, has the highest proportion of people in work struggling to make ends meet in Britain, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The JRF said a household was in poverty if it had an income of less than 60% of median income for their family type, after housing costs.

The working poverty problem is most acute for single parents like Melanie and is made worse by the high living costs in the capital, benefit cuts and the weak wage growth of the past decade. Far from the streets being paved with gold in the capital, more than half of lone-parent families in London are in poverty, at 53%, which is the highest rate in the UK.

Still recovering from a difficult divorce that left her in serious financial difficulty, Melanie lives in a private rented flat and could never imagine having her own home with a garden for her son to play in. Spiralling house prices and living costs have pushed her into poverty.

“Everyone’s always says that being in the south-east we have it really easy. But the reality is that is completely unreal,” she says.

Melanie’s finances are made tougher by universal credit, the Conservatives’ flagship welfare scheme, which rolls together six benefits into a single online-only system.

She struggled to find conventional full-time and part-time work with employers that gave her enough flexibility to manage the school run, so started her own cleaning business with a friend. But the admin has been challenging, while gaps in benefits income have left her short of money.

“Universal credit has strapline that says ‘make work pay’. But it doesn’t,” she says. “The fact that they are penalising you for working is ludicrous. It’s sad to think in this day and age that working people are in poverty.

“The benefit system was set up to stop this, but everything seems to be crumbling beneath our feet.”


Richard Partington

The GuardianTramp

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