How sudden changes can leave us struggling to hold back the tide of poverty

Unexpected events can completely change the course of our lives, plunging us into hardship and eroding the stability and security we all need. Paul Brook spoke to two people who have gone from running businesses to bringing up their children on their own on a low income.

As JRF’s new UK Poverty 2019/20 report shows, too many people in our society today are struggling to get by, leading insecure and precarious lives, and held back from improving their living standards. Something like losing your job or a relationship breakdown can be enough to sweep you into troubled waters.

When we spoke to parents on low incomes about housing, work and social security as part of the UK Poverty project, many of their comments reflected a sense of insecurity: “no stability”, “a constant struggle”, “no financial control”, “can’t plan for anything”.

Moses Zikusoka, 54, and Elizabeth Cullen, 56, know what it’s like to be hit by a sudden change in circumstances.

"It’s been really tough”

Moses grew up in the UK after his family left Uganda in the 1970s. He got his MBA in Marketing before going on to work for Coca-Cola in Europe and Africa, then became Managing Director of QG Saatchi and Saatchi in Kampala, Uganda, before founding and developing his own events services business there.

After the breakdown of a relationship, he returned to London as a single father, wanting to give his three boys the same opportunities he’d had.

“I came back in 2016 to a very changed Britain,” he says. “Despite my experience and knowledge, I had to start all over again, as a single parent."

When I came back to the UK it was quite demoralising. I underestimated how hard it would be to start again. It’s been really tough financially. I’d never claimed benefits before. I was used to working in a senior role, and I’m now earning half of what I earned 15 years ago, but I have to accept the circumstances. Being a single parent is not the end of the world. I have done many things in my life and I’m a very positive person. The benefits are a stop-gap.

“The worst time of my life”

Elizabeth has been raising her two sons on her own since her partner left in 2003, and lives in a houseboat that he owns.

“I’m in a difficult situation,” she says. “I didn’t marry their father. He’s a wealthy man. In 2008 he got a court order that I could only live in one of his houses while one of the children was in full-time education, He’s now trying to get us out of the house. I'm struggling with the law for equal rights for cohabitees.”

In 2018, Elizabeth co-wrote an article with Sir Vince Cable, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and Elizabeth’s former constituency MP, about the law on cohabiting relationships. This excerpt explains the problems she faces:

When relationships break down, common decency and common sense often prevail and separation, while painful, is amicable or at least civil. But there are some cases where cruelty, vindictiveness, revenge or indifference play a large part and one partner (usually, but not always, the woman) is left seriously financially disadvantaged and with children to care for. In the case of cohabiting, unmarried, couples the disadvantage can be compounded by the lack of legal claims that reflect equality between the partners. An unmarried individual has no claim against a former cohabitant for financial assistance and property will revert to a father at the end of a child’s education.
Excerpt from Elizabeth's Politics Home article with Sir Vince Cable

The breakdown of her relationship was a bitter blow for Elizabeth after coming through a traumatic period of her life. She and her young family had moved house to help care for her father, who had lung cancer.

“While I was living there my cervical cancer was detected,” says Elizabeth. "It was absolutely horrendous. My sister gave up work and moved in, and my mother had to look after my children when she had just lost her husband. I didn’t know my partner had been having an affair for three years, and during my illness.”

Elizabeth and her ex-partner used to run a childcare business.

“The business grew very big, very quickly into a multi-million-pound (on paper) company, but it ended in the recession,” she says. “My partner resigned as a director days before it collapsed. It was horrific."

When we moved to London I thought it was a new start for us. We moved into the houseboat and in the September I found out about the affair. It was the worst time of my life – worse than finding out I had cancer. It’s had an awful impact on me and a professional has suggested I could be suffering with PTSD. I have terrible flashbacks of what my eldest son went through.

Working to stay afloat

Moses currently works part-time for Marks and Spencer, and lives with his sister, who helps him with the children.

He tried working full-time, but it became too stressful trying to balance that with bringing up his children.

“In the morning I get up with my kids, take them to breakfast club and go to work,” says Moses. “The children get to spend time at school, and in the evenings I collect them from my sister, having cooked their dinner, helped them with their homework, and put them to bed. And then it is finally my relaxation time. Weekends family often help with my children. I have to be very organised.

“Financially, I’m juggling a lot of things and I’m not where I should be. I’ve not been able to take the children on holiday for three years."

Childcare is a big problem for parents juggling. It’s not affordable. People can’t afford a nanny to cover the hours when nurseries aren’t open. What you have to pay for childcare is more than you can get from benefits, so there’s a gap.

Moses has an idea for a pay-as-you-go, 24-hour childcare centre, catering for parents who work shifts during the week and at weekends, particularly night-shift workers in health care, retail, manufacturing and cleaning jobs. Services – which Moses hopes would be subsidised by local councils or government – could include homework supervision, social activities, meals and overnight accommodation.

“Many people where I live work quite destabilising hours – they need time for their family and social life as well as work,” he explains. “Why not utilise those different hours? If the parents are working a night shift, they can drop their children in, the children can stay overnight, they’re looked after, fed, can do their homework, and you can change and have a shower there.”

Until recently, Elizabeth was working as a support teacher in a local school, but she is now looking for another role that matches her qualifications and experience.

“The boys come first,” she says. “I’m not able to put money aside because I have used all of my money on bringing them up by myself, and my partner has been mean with child support money. He paid child maintenance initially, albeit the bare minimum, but his contribution wasn’t even enough to cover our utility bills, which suddenly became my responsibility.

“Thankfully my second son, who has severe dyslexia and ADHD, got funding for his place at a specialist school and is now in his foundation year at university. I still need to pay for his accommodation, so I do Air B&B and take in a lodger. I manage from month to month – the lodger helps a lot.”

Hope on the horizon?

Despite his current situation, Moses is optimistic about the future, and is working on several different projects and ideas.

“Nothing’s going to stop me,” he says. “I’m not ashamed of my life. If I can use it to help other people I’m more than happy. We need to help each other. People fall through the cracks for different reasons and you have no idea of their backgrounds."

Everyone's situation as a single parent has a different genesis. Relationships break down all the time. People need to be given realistic opportunities. I’ve been out of the country for a long time so I find it hard to open doors. I have got all these ideas but I need to get in front of people.

Moses is channelling his creativity into developing his ideas and projects, alongside working, parenting, and volunteering as a governor at his sons’ school.

“I’m writing a book about my experiences of being a single parent and an African middle-aged man in the UK,” he says. “Another idea I’m working on is a TV pilot on how fatherhood has changed in the world over the last 50 years.”

He adds: “I’ve started a new campaign called Greater Brits. It’s around tribe and pride. I felt Britain had lost its way – Brits were not feeling good about themselves. We’re one Britain but many Brits. It celebrates unity, diversity and inclusion. It’s a multicultural society. Let’s start rebuilding trust and greatness based on inclusiveness.”

You can follow Greater Brits on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Elizabeth now has a supportive partner, and her youngest son is enjoying university.

“I would like to see my sons settled and happy,” says Elizabeth. “My biggest wish is to see my second son graduate. I’m so proud to say that our eldest graduated last summer."

I would love a house of my own. That’s the only black cloud over me now.

In the future, she would like to spend more time on campaigning to change the law for cohabitees, and to help other mothers in her situation.

“I would hate for other mothers to have to endure what we’ve been through over the years,” she says. “It’s made our life difficult and there’s no protection in this country at all.”