Lone parents on a low income – how much is ‘enough’?

Helen Graham, Edinburgh Napier University

Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or are at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies to which they belong. Their resources are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities.” – Peter Townsend [1]

Research into determining a minimum income standard (MIS) in recent years has suggested that people in the UK broadly agree with Townsend’s understanding of a poverty line that exceeds the most basic needs, and encompasses a range of items and activities that facilitate participation in ordinary life. [2] This includes a certain degree of expenditure, for example, on transport, clothing and social activities. It is, however, a level of expenditure that is beyond reach of those on out of work benefits. For a hypothetical lone parent with one child in 2015, the MIS is £291.14 per week (excluding rent and childcare). Their benefit income (from a typical combination of Income Support or Jobseeker’s Allowance, Child Benefit and Child Tax Credits), at £157.43, covers just 57% of this.

But how do lone parents on out of work benefits themselves feel about the level of income they receive? To what extent do they feel that it falls short of allowing them to meet their needs – and indeed, what do they understand as constituting ‘enough’? Recent research by the Employment Research Institute [3] [4] has explored lone parents’ lived experiences of being in receipt of out of work benefits, and suggests that they simultaneously view the amount they receive as both enough and insufficient.

The general feeling among the lone parents participating in the research is that the amount received is just sufficient to live on and no more. It allows them to keep a roof above their heads, and to pay bills and buy food and other essential items. However, there is little or nothing left over; they are unable to take their children on trips, and buy them the things that they want, and that their contemporaries have. Further still down the list of priorities are lone parents’ own social lives, and in some cases even basic items, with some restricting their own diet in order to save money.

It just gets you there and no more. There’s nothing to play about with, you can’t treat yourself.”

You just scrape by on your benefits really. By the time you pay your bills and get the shopping… I manage. I’ve got to manage!

It is a struggle, it’s not easy, but I get by. But there’s never any spare money to do anything, if you wanted to take the kids out anywhere.”

I get by. I do struggle, you cannae deny that you struggle, but in all fairness it’s enough to cover me, my weans, it’s enough to make sure we’ve got all of our bills, it’s enough for the way we live.”

You can’t really ask for any more, can you? You get what you get, you don’t work, so you can’t.”

Lone parents on how they manage on their income [3]

The MIS threshold allows for expenditure on what many of the participants would describe as extras or treats; it includes the resources to run a car if required, and the ability to spend around £45.76 per week on ‘social and cultural participation’. This would encompass things like taking children on trips, as well as the opportunity to socialise themselves. But in reality these activities constitute a substantial proportion of their income, which is in any case already accounted for by essential items.

Quite often I get money on Tuesday and by Wednesday I have got pennies in my purse. I don’t have £2 to give to my daughter to go to her Guides thing.”

If the Scottish Government want children to be healthier, we need to get them out… but for [self and two children] to go on an away day it would cost £7.50, that’s like 10 per cent of my benefits for that week.”

I have one social night out and that’s it, it foils me for the whole month. My budget is that tight, so if I have a night out, I struggle. There’s no room to live, really. When I take into account the needs of my family, of my daughter, to encourage her to grow and educate her… for me [daughter’s extracurricular activities] are all educational activities that are going to benefit her in the long run… I want to make sure these things are maintained for her.”

Lone parents on the cost of activities [4]

Most of the lone parents participating in the research explicitly defined the amount they receive as enough – as one participant put it,  for the way we live. And yet there was also a sense that it is not; that when even modest expenditure on items that would be beneficial to their children is out of the question, then the way they live is not enough. That their children deserve more, to live a life that is not so far out of step with that of their peers.

The inability to participate in everyday social, cultural and educational activities can only be damaging to the social relationships of lone parents, and to the social and educational development of their children. Those who find themselves trapped on out of work benefits by the difficulties of reconciling their roles as sole earner and carer, and awarded little by a system which places a low value on caring, are reaching for an ordinary life and falling short. If they are to lead ordinary lives, they will need a helping hand.

[1] Townsend, P. (1979). Poverty in the UK. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

[2] The research established a minimum income standard through a process of discussion and debate between experts and focus groups representing a cross-section of the population. A minimum income calculator is at: http://www.minimumincome.org.uk/. The methodology is outlined in Bradshaw et al. (2008). A minimum income standard for Britain: what people think. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation; 2008. http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/minimum-income-standard-britain-what-people-think

[3] The Employment Research institute was commissioned by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health to conduct research into the impact of welfare reforms on lone parents in Glasgow.

Graham, H., & McQuaid, R. (2014). Exploring the impacts of the UK government’s welfare reforms on lone parents moving into work. Glasgow Centre for Population Health. http://www.gcph.co.uk/publications/497_impacts_of_welfare_reforms_on_lone_parents_moving_into_work_report

[4] The Employment Research Institute has also been commissioned by the Scottish Government to conduct a longitudinal qualitative study on the impacts of welfare reform in Scotland.

Graham, H., Lister, B., Egdell, V., McQuaid, R., & Raeside, R. (2014). The impact of welfare reform in Scotland – Tracking Study: Year 1 report. Scottish Government Social Research. http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0046/00463006.pdf

Graham, H., Egdell, V., McQuaid, R., & Raeside, R. (2015). The Impact of Welfare Reform in Scotland – Tracking Study – Sweep 3 report. Scottish Government Social Research. http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0047/00477917.pdf

Dr Helen Graham, Research Fellow, Edinburgh Napier University