Making work pay for single parents

Despite the received political wisdom that ‘every hour you work is worth your while’, for too many single parents today, work simply does not pay, argues Daisy-Rose Srblin 

Despite the stubborn prevalence of stereotypes suggesting otherwise, two in three single parents today are in work. But low levels of skills, lack of flexible work and the high cost of childcare means that single parents are in some of the lowest paid jobs, many of which are insecure.

The rise of insecure work such as zero-hours contracts in the ‘gig’ economy and self-employment has its opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, going beyond the ‘9 to 5’ means that the economy is increasingly flexible and catered to the 24/7 service culture. On the other hand, insecurity can equate to instability in income and irregularity in hours for low-paid workers.

At Gingerbread, we know that many single parents want more flexible work, where an employer understands and where possible accommodates an employee’s needs, largely due to high childcare costs. In a city where the cost of full-time childcare for a child under two is now equivalent to around half of an average single parent’s disposable income, London single parents in particular are struggling to balance their desire to work and the responsibilities of childcare.

However, finding stable flexible work can be a real challenge. Nearly one third of working single parents we have talked to said that they wanted, but did not currently have, a flexible working arrangement, or had had a request turned down.

Many single parents just do not have the autonomy to negotiate flexible working or cannot afford the salary sacrifice that would be required by cutting down their hours to accommodate demands and responsibilities at home.

For instance, of the two in three single parents that are now working, over two-thirds enter the three lowest paid occupation groups: including ‘unskilled’ jobs like cleaning, shelf-stacking and catering work; jobs in sales or retail; and personal service jobs, such as carers or child minders.

The lack of genuine stability and flexibility in these jobs means that many single parents end up either with rigid patterns of flexible work or part-time work, that do not accommodate for school holidays or unforeseen circumstances where a child is ill. Other single parents we have worked with have an insecure flexibility, lacking the stability of regular or guaranteed hours. For instance, while working on a zero-hour contract might seem flexible, the irregularity of work that comes with this flexibility (combined with the problems of constantly changing benefits calculations) can pose a significant challenge to some single parents.

Combined with the particular demands that Universal Credit creates for single parents, such as the condition that single parents of younger children are in or ‘preparing’ for work, the situation is becoming significantly more difficult.

Genuinely flexible working practices, which allows for employee autonomy in negotiating hours for instance, remain largely available to better-paid and higher-skilled professionals.

But employees in all jobs deserve access to truly flexible working, wherever possible, shaped around their specific needs – and this is especially true of single parents. There is not enough genuine flexible work to support those with caring responsibilities, and single parents continue to be hit by a double-whammy of this, combined with expensive childcare.

Genuinely flexible work, together with flexible, affordable and high-quality childcare cannot be an afterthought for the vast majority of parents who are working, or looking for work. Single parents want and need flexible working placed at the forefront of modern employment practices, whatever industry they work in.

And without access to flexibility in both childcare and work, single parents will continue to disproportionately struggle to maintain stable work and responsibilities at home.

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Daisy-Rose Srblin is a policy officer at Gingerbread, the leading charity working with single parent families. She tweets at @DCSrblin

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