Insecurity and difficult decisions: how lone parents manage on low incomes

13th Jul 2017

Single parents on low incomes are being hit hard by rising living costs and the benefit freeze. How do they cope with the impact of low pay and insecurity?

More than 2 million children with lone parents are living below what they need for a decent standard of living.

Almost three quarters of lone-parent households live below that standard, and our annual update of A Minimum Income Standard for the UK shows that lone parents are falling £640 a year – £67 a week – short of what they need.

But what does that mean in reality, both day to day and over the longer term?

Today we publish a new report that highlights what it’s like for lone mothers and their families to live on low incomes – their experiences of employment, how it affects family life, children’s transitions to adulthood, and the decisions they have to make.

This in-depth research has followed 15 families since 2002, and these are their experiences.



Most of the women interviewed had successfully maintained work. Three had progressed in their careers and were doing well, but most were earning wages that were below the median for women, and not much above the minimum wage.

For example, Sally was a care worker in 2004, holding two jobs totalling about 50 hours a week. She was earning about £5 an hour, at a time when the national minimum wage was £4.85 an hour. By 2016 she had completed some further training and was working full-time in health care in a hospital. She was earning about £16,000 a year, so her hourly rate was probably still around or just above the National Living Wage (£8.25 an hour in 2015). She worried about debts and about retirement and her lack of pension. But still she said: “I am on my feet. I do a job that I absolutely love and adore. I have people working with me that is absolutely fantastic and think really well of me… financially could obviously be a bit better…”

Wendy had spent three years on Income Support when she first separated but since the first interview she had had a steady job. After 14 or 15 years in work, and having spent two years studying part-time at university, she still felt that she had not quite managed to achieve financial security. Her hourly pay rate of £9.74 in 2016 was below the hourly median of £10.94 for all women in work in 2016. She expressed concerns about money and debts, and as she put it in 2016, “my financial circumstances are always just teetering on the edge”.


Decisions – going without and making do

Living on a low income is about coping day to day, and the lone mothers in this study gave examples of how they personally had gone without in order to protect and provide for their children.

Irene looked back to when her children were young and she was working part-time. “I remember there was a time when the kids were young … I would maybe have £6 and I would write a list of what I was going to buy. I would buy four apples, because you would have half an apple. So I’d always been used to trying, I’m not saying I always did – but trying to live within my means.”

Tracey also looked back to her time studying and working part-time. “In the main we did have to sort of make do and we did have clothes from charity shops and whatnot. I think I probably had two bras for about 10 years.”

But as their children became young adults, their mums often didn’t have enough resources to provide a buffer, protection or an opportunity to help them through.


Relationships and impact on children

In general, the mothers were proud of their children and how they had raised them, and the young people usually appreciated what their mums had achieved.

Lucy said: “I wouldn’t have changed anything. I think I’ve given them a lot of my time. I’ve organised my life around them, I think, but they’ve turned out great... I’m happy with what I’ve done.”

But relationships with children weren’t always easy and in some cases resulted in children moving out of the family home. Some could live with another family member; others went to hostels and/or were homeless.

For Sarah the breakdown in relationship with her children was in part driven by low income and more immediately by the loss of tax credits: “I was on Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit then, but when all that stopped I found it particularly hard … because it just stopped all of a sudden, but they still needed feeding… Basically we just couldn’t all afford to live here, so they branched out.”

Maia does not like to even mention money to her mother now. She feels that their money struggles growing up affected them. She said: “I think it added to a lot of the stress around the house and I, I hate speaking to my mum about money and like I won’t even enter a conversation with her about it.”

The mothers had a strong work ethic but some realised that having to work to keep money coming in had come at a cost – they couldn’t spend much time with their children.

I fitted it in but I’m sure there were times when, you know, I feel I’ve missed out with them and they maybe felt they’ve missed out with me a bit because … but then I think they always saw, because I was the sole provider, I didn’t really have an option.

Children played a key role in enabling their mothers to work, by:

  • taking on extra responsibilities, such as doing chores or caring for younger sibling
  • holding back on their own needs – trying not to put financial pressure on their mothers for things like new clothes, school trips and equipment, and social activities
  • accepting situations they were not particularly happy with, including changes in their caring arrangements.

Tiffany had considerable demands placed on her when she was growing up. Her mother was working full-time and as the oldest child she was caring for her siblings. This was particularly stressful for her in her mid-teens when she was trying to balance her school work and care work at home. “I just feel that with everything that I’m getting from school, all the pressure and then with the things that I have to do that’s outside of school, like one of them is not going to be able to fit in and I worry that it’s going to be the work at school that I’m not going to be able to fit in.”

The young people also feel under pressure to earn and don’t always get chance to go back into education.

John wished he had done better at school; he has no qualifications and has had no real training. He started work as a bouncer in the security world when he was 16, initially following his father into unlicensed and dangerous work. He is still working for a private security firm. He lived in a hostel for several years, but is now on a rent-to-buy scheme and hopes to buy the flat he lives in one day. But he is struggling to manage on a low and insecure income, and is living and working in a hard world. He wants to get more training to get a better job but can’t afford to.

“To be blunt about it, it’s a dead-end job,” he said. “There’s no high positions. The only better positions there are, are in the control room, on the camera.”

Domestic abuse had strong long-term impacts on both mothers and children, affecting their confidence, self-esteem, trust and relationships. All the time the women and young people were dealing with work and managing their lives, they were often also carrying a heavy emotional and psychological weight.

Relationships with fathers varied, but they were often absent from their children's daily lives.

Low income and insecurity

Low income and insecurity

Poor health and retirement worried several of the women, even those with good jobs. Many felt they were just managing, rather than being able to plan for the future.

In Bella’s case, things had been going well – she’d got a degree, was working four-and-a-half days, and had the most money she’d ever earned – but when ill-health forced her to reduce her working hours, she felt insecure, as she hadn’t got a pension.

“All my money went on the kids growing up – I couldn’t afford to pay a pension,” she said. “Really – if I’d started paying a pension when I started at this place, it would have been good but I never stayed anywhere long so I never bothered to start a pension.”

She describes the long-term impact of living on a low income:

It’s the grind that gets you down, every single day … I think what contributes to me being ill was having so many years of having to cope, basically.

What would help?

What would help?

It’s important to focus on the present with an eye on the future – single parent families on low wages or out of work have seen their living standards gradually get worse over the years, despite the introduction of the National Living Wage, which also means worse prospects for the now-grown children’s generation and likely their own children.

In the immediate future, we’re recommending that the Government lifts the freeze on working-age tax credits and Universal Credit, so that support keeps up with the rising cost of living.

Alongside this, the Government should reinstate Universal Credit Work Allowances, so that families can have a more secure platform to get back into work and keep more of their earnings. We also recommend ending the seven-day wait before people are allowed to claim, and monitoring the impact of payment one month in arrears.

To stem the rise in child poverty, we recommend lifting the limit on additional support for families with more than two children.

In the longer term, our strategy to solve poverty in the UK recommends:

For the families:

  • delivering advice and support through integrated hubs, co-located with other services that people use. These would bringing together a range of services related to work and income, careers advice, advice on transport and childcare, advice on local welfare assistance schemes, benefits checks and debt advice.

For the children:

  • high-quality, flexible and affordable childcare, which helps parents to share care and stay in work
  • getting the best teachers into schools with the highest numbers of children in poverty and spending money from the Pupil Premium on the best-evidenced practice for improving outcomes
  • supporting the transition of young people through high-quality careers advice while at school; high-quality apprenticeships and post-16 support through local hubs
  • closing the gap in welfare protection for young people before adult protection begins, including raising the basic levels of benefits for young people under 18 living independently.

For the women:

  • more employers paying the voluntary Living Wage – given that more women work in low-pay sectors, alongside better part-time jobs, flexible work and careers progression.
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