Why working parents are struggling to repel the rising tide of poverty

It’s unacceptable that more working parents are being swept into poverty, and struggling to keep their heads above water. Three working parents told Paul Brook what it’s like to live with this pressure every day, and what might help to ease it.

We all believe and expect that working should provide a route out of poverty, yet a rising number of working parents are caught up in a turbulent tide of high housing costs and low-paid, insecure jobs, with a benefits system that no longer keeps them afloat in hard times. This situation is a sure sign that these systems need redesigning.

Hazel, a single mum from Fife, who works part-time as a personal care assistant, knows what that feels like. In this clip, she compares her situation to a hamster’s wheel.

Hazel discussing her life and in-work poverty.

Our new report shows that more than half of people in poverty in the UK live in a family where at least one person is in paid work

Hazel has found that her income is never enough for her and her two teenage sons to have a decent quality of life.

“I have been on my own with the boys since their dad walked out when they were three and one,” she said. “Since then I’ve struggled either on benefits or working, but with just one income it’s never enough. I have worked full-time for a good wage and then I have worked part-time for minimum wage and there hasn’t been much difference. When working full-time I didn’t get tax credits or Housing Benefit and had to live on my wage just, then working part-time on minimum wage means I get a wee top up of tax credits, but it leaves me with no more than previously. For me to get a decent quality of life, I would really need to be earning a much higher wage."

I live in a private rented house. My rent is £700 a month and I earn £700 a month from my job, so that just leaves me and my two kids with my tax credits for everything else.

Relationships, mental health and poverty

Sue and Beckie both experienced poverty after relationship breakdowns, and it was poverty that pulled them into mental health problems.

“Losing my job, losing my home, losing my marriage were all hard but it was poverty that sent me to the brink of suicide,” says Sue, a former civil service manager who now works part-time for a mental health charity in Inverness.

I left an abusive marriage and ended up in a grotty furnished flat with my three now-grown-up boys. I left with the clothes I was wearing, the boys’ clothes, a duvet and a slow cooker. I had nothing. I didn’t have a knife and fork or a plate, any covers for the beds, and I didn’t have any money to buy any. I couldn’t make ends meet. My rent, my electricity costs and trying to cover everything for the boys was just too much. People thought that, as a civil service manager, I was earning loads, but they had no idea about the pressures I was under.

Sue explains how the high costs of essentials contributed to her situation.

“I had to run a car. If I didn’t have fuel in the car I couldn’t get the children to school. You need a car in a rural community – there was one bus a week, on a Thursday. I had to heat the flat and in a Highland winter it was costing me in excess of £80 per week to feed the token meter. I was so broke. I had childminding costs and arrangements that were completely unsustainable in the long term. I ended up having to give up my job.”

In this clip, Sue talks about how her electricity key came to symbolise the stress and anxiety of poverty.

Sue discussing how her electricity key came to symbolise the stress and anxiety of poverty.

Beckie’s story shows how a combination of circumstances can drag people into poverty.

“I had my son when I was quite young and was living with my parents,” she said. “But my relationship with my parents started breaking down and I moved to a hostel for eight months before getting my house. The company I worked for went into liquidation and I got redundancy and could afford things for my child. When that ran out, it hit hard. That’s when I started losing who I was. My confidence went.

I got a house and moved in with nothing. I sat in deck chairs in the living room for about eight months. I had no telly until my mum gave me her old one. I slept on a mattress on the floor. For about three years I was in and out of work. My son was the only thing that kept me going. I got into debt with nurseries for childcare. I split up with my boyfriend and I became really ill. I had to move back in with my parents for two months. I lost my purpose.

Beckie now works 32 hours a week as a scheme manager for Anchor Housing.

“I really enjoy my role,” she says.” It can be quite demanding at times but I enjoy the challenges it brings as it increases my confidence and knowledge. I have also been able to complete my level 3 housing qualification which was funded by Anchor and looking to complete my level 5 in the next year.

“Things changed for me when I took part in a fashion project organised by my housing provider, Leeds Federated. At a point in my life where I had lost all self-confidence, I had to really push myself to get involved. During the project I worked closely with Leeds Federated’s community development manager, who identified that all I needed was an opportunity, a chance to get my life back on track, a chance to be somebody again, a chance to enjoy life. I was asked if I wanted to join Leeds Federated voluntarily to gain confidence in finding work. I was so happy to be given this opportunity that I started working voluntarily almost straight away and did so for six months.”

Beckie’s work as a volunteer gave her the break she needed, and led to a paid role.

Sue also recognises the vital step volunteering can play in helping people back into work.

There’s something about volunteering and how rewarding that can be. It’s good for building confidence. But you have to balance volunteering with the conditionality of Universal Credit. There’s not always recognition of the stepping stone volunteering can be into paid work.

“I think it’s very difficult when you have depression," Sue adds "You lose your confidence, you feel worthless, you don’t feel like you can do anything. I needed someone to believe in me and support me.”

Working and managing on a low income

Hazel works 20 hours a week for a low wage.

“I work Mon – Fri, 1.5 hours in the morning and 2.5 hours in the evening, supporting one lady with personal care, light domestic duties, shopping and sometimes a little social support,” she says. “I have been there for just over a year. I thoroughly enjoy it. We have built up a good relationship – we both suffer from fibromyalgia so we can sympathise with one another. She is very understanding if I am struggling any day too which helps."

Every week I am living week to week, I live on my tax credits and my wage at the end of the month pays the bills. Every week I have school dinner money to give the boys, diesel for my car, food for the house. Most weeks I manage, but it involves rigid meal planning, then going around Aldi with a calculator to ensure I stay within budget. No treats, no luxuries for me and the boys. Every week I am always left with nothing by the Tuesday or Wednesday and it’s a waiting game for my tax credits on the Thursday.

Beckie says that even after being in paid employment for seven years, she has to budget very carefully to make ends meet, and has few options.

Budgeting for a weekly shop is something I still struggle with. I get paid monthly and the first two weeks after pay day are what I call my ‘worry-free’ weeks as I can get what I need without having to worry if I will have enough money. The other weeks I have to do a low-budget shop, which sometimes means extra items such as laundry gel and conditioner or toiletries have to wait until payday or I have to rely on lending money to cover the costs.

Hazel is now juggling her part-time job with studying, having recently started at university.

“I’m hoping now I am at uni and receiving a student loan that I will be a wee bit better off,” she says. “Ultimately, I’m looking forward to graduating and hopefully being able to get a job with a really good salary so that I can get out of the poverty trap once and for all. Fingers crossed.”

What would help to loosen poverty's grip?

Research and experience both point to three main things that could be done to loosen poverty’s grip:

  • reduce housing costs for renters
  • strengthen the support offered by the social security system
  • open up opportunities for better-paid employment.

Sue, Hazel and Beckie have some suggestions for what could help them and many other people in similar situations.

I think that we need to return to a system of social security rather than this judgmental term of ‘welfare’. We need to see a system of support which recognises that people do get sick, relationships end, people lose jobs and stop treating it as a stick to beat folks with. Focusing on how to help people weather their crisis would help, and changing the focus of DWP and giving them new targets, which are supportive of people rather than about punishment. You can’t sanction people into work.
I think the Government needs to increase the benefits to match the rate of inflation and give everyone the opportunity to a decent quality of life. The minimum wage needs to be more like the Living Wage – which might mean some families aren’t needing tax credits to top up their income – and make working worth it.
It is important that solutions to poverty are based on facts and individuals’ experiences. Only then will we find solutions that will actually work and make a difference to people living in poverty. How can you be sure that putting plans in place are going to work if you are not aware of the problems? We need to find out what the real struggles are and where the real help can be placed. If voices of the people living in poverty were heard and action was taken based on these real-life scenarios and conditions then maybe it would give them hope, ambition, encouragement, opportunities and happiness that everyone deserves.

UK poverty 2018: The stats at a glance

  • 14 million people live in poverty in the UK.
  • More than half are in families where at least one person is in paid work. Child poverty has been rising since 2011/12.
  • 4.1 million children now live in poverty, a rise of 500,000 in the last five years. The vast majority of this rise has taken place in working families.