Half of all children in lone-parent families are now living in relative poverty, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, whose findings are published today by the Guardian. After a decade of cuts to welfare, these families – most of them headed by women – have been left without the buffer they need to manage the impact of soaring inflation. Often ignored, and sometimes deliberately targeted by government policy, single mothers have a big role in raising raising the next generation, caring for just over 3m children in Britain today. They represent a quarter of all families with dependent children.
Here, four mothers talk about the daily challenge of feeding and caring for their children.
Steph Owens, 29, Kent
I’ve been a single mother since my son was born. He’s now five. We live in a house together in Kent, and I work as an NHS associate practitioner – helping to plan and facilitate discharges from hospital.
I was working in learning disabilities, and we had such a heavy drop in case load because of the pandemic they couldn’t take me on and made me redundant. That was very difficult. I was unemployed for four months and had to use food banks because universal credit payments just didn’t catch up with my income.
There was a sense of shame in it. Almost a sense that you can’t provide the very basics you should be able to for your child. I contacted Single Parent Rights and they signposted me to the benefits I was entitled to. You see in the comments all the time on social media, people saying things like: “Well don’t have children if you can’t afford them.” But life isn’t like that. Circumstances change. You can’t predict the future like that.
I still rely on universal credit despite working full-time now, and I am really feeling the squeeze. My energy bills and food costs have gone up by about £200 a month. I’m absolutely terrified about October when they are set to go even higher. My rent has been going up every three years now, and the council tax has also risen. The cost of the gas hit me hard over winter. I use pay as you go so I don’t get a huge bill at the end of the month but we have had to wrap up warm and just switch it off most days.
Doing our weekly shop has gone from £45 to about £100 a fortnight just for the two of us. It is a lot. It has changed what I buy – I tend to go towards the own-brand and value ranges, when before it wouldn’t have mattered too much. I have found some suppliers very good at negotiating better deals with, though – Sky reduced my bills to the cheapest tariff available.
The 3% wage rise the government gave to NHS workers just doesn’t make any difference. There is definitely an air of being very underpaid and undervalued for what we do. It would be nice to be able to live, and not live hand to mouth all the time. I’ve not had a holiday since my son was born, and he’s never experienced one – there is just not a stretch for those kind of luxuries. When you have a young, active, boisterous boy – they need constant entertainment. I just want to be able to provide days out. The budget doesn’t stretch anywhere near that far.
Heather Parker, 36, Essex
I’m Canadian, and I have been living in the UK for seven years. I have a five-year-old daughter and we just moved into a permanent residence after years of living in short-term places and before that, between women’s refuges. The local council moved me out of east London to Essex, and sadly I lost my support circle.
The rent for my new home is about £900, however, and then there are utilities and council tax on top of that. It is quite a lot and I have real anxiety over it, with the rise in energy bills coming up again on October, and have found it hard to get a second income to support it.
I try to spend no more than £30 a week on groceries, and now it is summer, we don’t have the heating or the lights on at all to save on bills.
There are days when I don’t eat as much and I am hungry because the food goes to her first. I have trouble sleeping at night because I’ll be up with anxiety thinking about making enough money, and how I am going to spread the cost of things because of the rise of energy bills and inflation.
I am on universal credit. When they took the £20 uplift off it, I had to go to a lot of food banks. When I lived in London, there were a lot more food banks and it was easier to go. Now I’ve moved here, I have found two but you have to register to go once a week.
I have family back home in Canada but they are not allowed to send me money. If they sent me money, my benefit support would be decreased.
Jane Green, 59, Sussex
I am disabled with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and medically retired. I was an autism educational professional but I became very ill and had to retire in 2015. I’ve been a single parent since my children were six and four – they are now both adults and I am still a carer for my eldest, who is 30. They are autistic, have ADHD and have dyspraxia.
I qualify for a disability benefit, and have a small pension, but I am really concerned about the price rises in energy in October. Because of my condition, I can get very cold or very hot, and I can be stuck in bed or on the sofa. Once you get cold or hot, you cannot regulate your temperature, no matter how many clothes you wear.
We are using more and more electricity inside for cooling through the summer and heating through the winter, and with petrol prices soaring, too, we are increasingly staying at home. I am going to have to cut it right back to an hour a day. We also both have food allergies, which means the food shop is already expensive. We’ve had to cut down, and it feels embarrassing to talk about it. I feel that at my age, I should be more solvent. I’m spending about £120 now for two weeks’ worth of food, when we used to pay about £70 maximum.
Being disabled is already expensive. If you have health issues, and no petrol for your car or for transport, you can’t get to outpatient appointments. If you have to buy splints or supports, or extra medication over the counter, that all adds up. All my spare money goes on medical health. I get Pip [personal independence payment, a government benefit] but it doesn’t go far.
When I was a young mother, I was in poverty and often went without, trying to meet their healthcare needs and provide food. These price rises bring back horrible memories – when I felt ashamed because I didn’t know how to manage. Unless you’ve lived hand to mouth, I don’t think you have any idea what it is like. It gnaws at you every night.
Sarah Gibson, 36, Wiltshire
I had been living overseas for about 10 years and moved back to the UK when my child was one in June 2021 to raise them as a single mother. My ex pays half of the nursery fees for me, which has been great, but it has been a real struggle to manage financially, despite the fact I earn a fairly good wage and work full-time in communications.
Since April, nursery fees have gone up by 50p an hour and are now £1,277.50 a month. I did make use of the tax-free childcare system, which gives me 20% off my childcare fees up to £2,000 a year, but they make it really hard for anyone strapped for time to complete and you have to renew the application every three months.
I was living with my family but I have recently moved into a new house. Finding accommodation as a single mother is so hard. Usually, with one-bedroom places, landlords say no to having children living there, and there is a huge rent increase for a two-bed. That means I have had to adopt a different quality of life.
I’m lucky enough to have returned from New Zealand with savings from my job there but since everything went up in April, I’ve been eating into them and unable to save. Sadly, these savings mean I am ineligible to apply for universal credit as I am just above the threshold to qualify for it.
So many contracts tie you in for energy, broadband and so forth for more than a year, so you are stuck if you lose your job – or even if I had to move back in with my parents again. Financial insecurity is really scary. I’m dreading winter, when I have to have the heating on as part of my housing contract, as the energy costs go up again in October.
Ideally I’d be savvy with where I shop for groceries but I’ve got a toddler and a full-time job – I don’t want to spend what little free time I have calculating where the cheapest pasta is. The increase in food costs is noticeable, though, and continues to make a dent in my savings.