For a single parent in poverty, pressures keep piling up

COVID-19 has piled on new pressures and compounded existing strains for people who were already living in poverty before the pandemic. In the first in a three-part series of stories from members of JRF’s UK Poverty Grassroots Action Group, Paul Brook hears from Melanie about the issues that affect her as a single parent.

For this year's UK Poverty report, a group of people from around the UK have given us expert insight and guidance based on their experiences of poverty and the impact it has on them and their communities.

Melanie, a member of the group, lives in Surrey and is a former HR consultant. She has brought up her son on her own since splitting from her husband in 2010. She has experienced poverty as a result of repossession, bankruptcy, and the pressures of balancing work with childcare and caring responsibilities.

The events that swept Melanie into poverty began with being made redundant whilst pregnant with her son and the subsequent break-up of her marriage, and her husband leaving her in significant financial difficulty.

“In 2010 I split from my husband,” she says. “He had got me into a tricky situation financially. Until 2008, I had a career in HR, and was a senior HR consultant, but I was made redundant while I was pregnant. I had a couple of short-term contract jobs but it was during the financial crash. HR was hit hard at the time. I thought we should consolidate our debts into a mortgage we had. I gave birth to my son in 2009 and believed we would work at our problems, but my husband had a completely different agenda.

“I had to go through repossession when my son was still in pre-school. I had a bit of legal aid but that stopped when I got a part-time admin contract job. I had no maintenance coming in for myself, just for my son. That took six months to get through and I had nothing coming in. My mortgage was £1,500 a month and I was getting £200 towards it from the council when I split from my husband, and was left in this situation for some three years whilst awaiting repossession, which I was advised would take about three months.

The housing process was stacked against me. It keeps you in this poverty trap...

“The housing process was stacked against me. It keeps you in this poverty trap – the lack of affordability, the lack of properties (in this area you need to be earning £45k to be able to rent a two-bed property privately through an agency), and the lack of sustainable and available part-time jobs … you’re fighting systems continuously. It felt like one big fight for a long time, which takes a major toll on your mental health.

“I was professionally advised that the best thing for me to do was to go bankrupt. Mentally and emotionally, that time took a lot out of me. Universal Credit bangs on about you having to go to work but mentally I wasn’t in that place. My son was five and I had all this stuff going on – divorce, bankruptcy – but being pressured that I had to find a job. Without processing it, that put a lot of strain on me. I was taking any admin job I could get my hands on.”

Restricted employment opportunities

Since 2013, Melanie has been living in a rented flat. By the time her rent, council tax and childcare are paid for, she only has a very slim margin to live off, and her options for work are severely restricted.

“There are so many barriers stopping people from doing their job,” she says. “The hours, the childcare, the travelling and lack of support... These are pressures on single parents that aren’t thought about. There’s a lot of discrimination towards single mums.”

The public services make you feel like you are worth nothing.

Melanie says her self-esteem is at “rock bottom” after her experiences of the benefits system, the work environment, and going to the Jobcentre: “I was practically crying my eyes out every time I went there. The single parent with the main caring responsibilities, limited income and the lack of resources is left on their own, trying to cover any deficit usually created by the systems in place. It’s often the mums who are just trying to provide and do the best thing for their family. Rather than getting the support you need, you feel even worse as a human being. The public services make you feel like you are worth nothing.”

In 2020, Melanie was in and out of work, as the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll.

“With another single parent friend and out of desperation, I set up a cleaning company,” she says. “The last lady I had at the Jobcentre was really lovely and supportive, and helped us get the company up and running.

“There was always a natural turnover of clients – often older people who’d sadly died – and we wanted to build up the business. But then the Jobcentre expected us to get the minimum wage for every hour we were working, when we spent some of our time doing marketing, going out and meeting people. We were just about breaking even.

“With all the bills I still had, after paying my council tax, electricity – the basics – I only had £39 a week to live on, for food and everything else. On top of that, my ex-husband stopped paying my child maintenance. This meant I was down £600 a month overnight with no means to cover the loss. When COVID came along we lost some customers, mainly families – some were break-ups, others were working at home... I said to my business partner I can’t keep doing this, getting penalised, struggling to pay my bills and ultimately dealing with the effect on my mental health.”

Melanie had no option but to close her part of the business and look for a job with a steady income.

“I found a job at a refuge for domestically abused women,” she says. “However, it proved too difficult to maintain. I was refused part-time hours – it was 39 hours a week and it was longer than that – you worked through your lunch break, which was 30 minutes. They were understaffed and I was expected to manage the refuge on my own for a week, having only been there two months and still in my probation. I’m also caring for my 88-year-old, vulnerable father with health conditions. He was helping me to look after my son but COVID came along and it became too much for everyone involved to deal with.”

Additional pressures

With these additional pressures, and with her concerns about her workplace being COVID-secure, Melanie had no option but to leave her job.

“After everything you do, there are repercussions, like the fear of being sanctioned,” says Melanie. “I haven’t been working since October. The job situation is pretty bleak. I’m at a loss about what to do next. I have tried so many things to better myself. I consider myself quite a strong, educated and confident person, and I know I have so much to offer, but you just think ‘what’s the point?’ I’ve looked into retraining or gaining even more qualifications, but I don’t want the millstone of further debt around my neck, and who’s to say I would get a job at the end of it?

“I’ve struggled with benefits, work, housing, relationships... and as a result you feel you are no longer part of society.”

The £20 didn’t go that far but it did make a difference. I always needed that extra money to get me through.

One thing that has helped a little is the temporary £20-a-week uplift in Universal Credit.

“That extra £20 gave me a little bit more wiggle room,” says Melanie. “We’ve relied more on corner shops because they had the stock (in the first lockdown) – they were a lifeline when the supermarkets were running out of stock. But my £50 weekly shop went up to about £80. All the offers and discounts stopped – the £20 didn’t go that far but it did make a difference. I always needed that extra money to get me through.”

Melanie's choice of picture

Melanie chose this image to represent her experiences of poverty: "It depicts how I feel unsafe in my situation and that I’m always in anticipation and fear of something jumping out on me and causing me further hardship and worry."

Ornament of the word 'Boo', to represent how Melanie feels unsafe in her situation.