A narrative that resonates for single parents
by Rosie Ferguson
One in four families in the UK today is headed by a single parent, making them an everyday part of the fabric of our society. We’ve become a much more inclusive country, celebrating diversity of both families and individuals. And contrary to the stereotypes of old, the majority of single parents are now in work, despite how challenging it is to juggle being the sole breadwinner and homemaker.
In theory, then, this should be a golden age for single parent families, freed from social prejudice and financial insecurity. The reality, however, is very different. A child growing up in a single parent family is twice as likely as a child in a couple family to be growing up in poverty. Gingerbread’s recent report, Paying the price, found that a third of single parents are in debt and half of those surveyed (whether in or out of work, it doesn’t make a difference) had no money left at the end of the month most or all of the time.
The binary politics of traditional left and right are over – and this is reflected in what single parents tell us. They don’t see that having a safety net and the opportunity to thrive should be mutually exclusive.
So while single parents are working, the policies and institutions that are supposed to support them clearly aren’t.
Even discussing this isn’t without potential pitfalls – raising awareness of the severe financial problems that many single parent families face can damage perceptions about them, when we’re also trying to challenge stigma and stereotypes.
Rethinking Poverty provides a fresh lens through which to look at these issues and how we enable single parents to overcome them.
The narrative in Rethinking Poverty resonates with what single parents tell us
The binary politics of traditional left and right are over – and this is reflected in what single parents tell us. They don’t see that having a safety net and the opportunity to thrive should be mutually exclusive. Parents want to be able to provide stability for their children – a decent home, sufficient income – but they want more than just to be able to put food on the table. Like all families, single parents also want opportunities for them and their children to flourish – to be able to save a bit of money each month, progress in their career and take their children on holiday.
Take as a counter-example the current Job Centre Plus model. We’ve seen far too many cases of people dissuaded from taking on training, or pushed into jobs below their skill level, just to receive the benefits they need to support their families. This is a model that prioritises the bare minimum needed to survive over parents having the opportunity to make choices and develop their own lives.
Government can’t do everything … but we can’t let it off the hook
Another key angle that we agree with is that there is a vital role for all parts of society in enabling people to exit poverty – single parents themselves want to be part of leading the change for themselves and society. Gingerbread has nearly 100 peer-led local support groups across the country, for example, offering practical and emotional support in a way the state never could.
We also see a huge role for employers in ensuring work is genuinely flexible and compatible with family life. We’re part of a brilliant programme with Marks & Spencer (Marks & Start) that provides in-store work experience for single parents, and the opportunity to secure full employment with them.
But government can’t be let off the hook. It shouldn’t do everything – but what it can do it should do well. Take its universal credit welfare reform. Gingerbread is one of many voices calling for the six-week delay before you can get your universal credit payment to be scrapped, to prevent single parent families being driven further into debt. As it stands, the changes to our safety net are making it indefensibly unfit for purpose – and we mustn’t be afraid to say that.
Third sector leadership needs investment and space if we are to be genuine agents of social change
The book is also quite rightly critical of third sector leadership and our obsession with institution and ego over long-term social change. Yes, we have to take responsibility for this ourselves, but we also need to achieve a balance of stability and freedom in organisational terms if we are to flourish and have the space to genuinely think, learn and collaborate – rather than firefighting against both increasing need among our beneficiaries and increasing financial pressure on our institutions.
It is easier for charities to play into a negative narrative of portraying beneficiaries as ‘poverty victims’ to meet short-term fundraising goals than to go against the grain and champion the strengths and rights of those on lower incomes to flourish and thrive.
In an environment in which we are the delivery vehicle for contracts on increasingly challenging terms (where charities are required to cash-flow statutory programmes on payment by results and payment by spend contracts) and our freedom to campaign and fundraise is curtailed, it takes confident leadership to look beyond this. It is easier for charities to play into a negative narrative of portraying beneficiaries as ‘poverty victims’ to meet short-term fundraising goals than to go against the grain and champion the strengths and rights of those on lower incomes to flourish and thrive. The tide is turning on this, but if we are to genuinely shift the conversation then investment is needed in the development of leadership skills and in the time and space for leaders from all sectors and communities to dream together and plan together.
Rethinking Poverty quite rightly states that we urgently need a conversation that moves us forward from the binary politics of the 20th century – and ensures diverse voices are part of the debate. We at Gingerbread are well up for this!
Rosie Ferguson is chief executive of Gingerbread.
Read more from the Rethinking Poverty discussion forum:
- Imagining a new future – former Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust Secretary, Stephen Pittam on Rethinking Poverty
- From paternalistic elites to participatory networks – Compass Director, Neal Lawson on Rethinking Poverty
- Huffington Post: Poverty Needs a New Story – Webb Memorial Trust Director, Barry Knight