‘I really feel the pressure’: single mothers on the cost of living crisis | UK cost of living crisis
HHalf of all children in single-parent families now live in relative poverty, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, whose findings are published today by the Guardian. After a decade of welfare cuts, these families – most of which are headed by women – have found themselves without the breathing room they need to manage the impact of soaring inflation. Often overlooked and sometimes deliberately targeted by government policy, single mothers play an important role in raising the next generation, caring for just over 3 million children in Britain today. They represent a quarter of all families with dependent children.
Here, four mothers talk about the daily challenge of feeding and caring for their children.
Steph Owens, 29, Kent
I have been a single mother since the birth of my son. He is now five years old. We live together in a house in Kent and I work as an NHS Associate Practitioner – helping to plan and facilitate hospital discharges.
I was working in the area of learning disabilities and we had such a drop in workload because of the pandemic that they couldn’t support me and fired me. It was very difficult. I was unemployed for four months and had to use food banks because universal credit payments just didn’t match my income.
There was a sense of shame in that. Almost a feeling that you cannot provide the basics that you should be able to provide for your child. I contacted Single Parent Rights and they told me what benefits I was entitled to. You see people on social media comments all the time saying things like, “Well, don’t have kids if you can’t afford them.” But life is not like that. Circumstances change. You can’t predict the future like that.
I still rely on Universal Credit even though I work full time now, and I really feel the pressure. My energy bills and food expenses have gone up by around £200 a month. I’m absolutely terrified of October when they should be going even higher. My rent goes up every three years now, and council tax has gone up as well. The cost of gas hit me hard during the winter. I use pay as you go so I don’t get a huge bill at the end of the month, but we had to heat it up and off most days.
Doing our weekly shopping has gone from £45 to around £100 a fortnight just for the two of us. It’s a lot. It’s changed what I buy – I tend to go for the own brand and value ranges, where before that wouldn’t matter too much. I found some providers to be very good at negotiating better deals, however – Sky lowered my bills to the cheapest rate available.
The 3% pay rise the government has given to NHS workers makes no difference. There’s definitely an air of being very underpaid and undervalued for what we do. It would be nice to be able to live, and not live day to day all the time. I haven’t had a vacation since my son was born, and he’s never had one – there’s just no stretch for that kind of luxury. When you have a young, active and boisterous boy, he needs constant entertainment. I just want to be able to provide release days. The budget doesn’t stretch far.
Heather Parker, 36, Essex
I am Canadian and have lived in the UK for seven years. I have a five year old daughter and we have just moved into permanent residence after years of living in short term places and before that between women’s shelters. The local council moved me from East London to Essex and unfortunately I lost my circle of support.
However, the rent for my new house is around £900, not including utilities and council tax. That’s a lot and I’m very worried about it, with rising energy bills coming back in October, and struggling to get a second income to support it.
I try not to spend more than £30 a week on groceries, and now it’s summer we have no heating or lights on at all to save on bills.
There are days when I eat less and I’m hungry because the food goes to her first. I have trouble sleeping at night because I will wake up anxiously thinking about making enough money and how I am going to split the cost of things due to rising energy bills and inflation.
I’m on universal credit. When they withdrew the £20 increase I had to go to many food banks. When I lived in London, there were a lot more food banks and it was easier to get there. Now that I’ve moved here I’ve found two but you have to sign up to go once a week.
I have family in Canada, but they are not allowed to send me money. If they sent me money, my benefits would be reduced.
Jane Green, 59, Sussex
I am disabled with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and medically retired. I was an autism educator but got very sick and had to retire in 2015. I’ve been a single parent since my kids were six and four – they’re both adults now and I still take care of my eldest, who is 30. They are autistic, have ADHD and dyspraxia.
I am entitled to a disability benefit, and I have a small pension, but I am really concerned about the rise in energy prices in October. Because of my condition, I can be very cold or very hot, and I can be stuck in my bed or on the couch. Once you’re cold or hot, you can’t regulate your temperature no matter how many clothes you wear.
We’re using more and more electricity indoors to cool in the summer and heat in the winter, and with gas prices soaring, we’re staying home more and more. I’m going to have to reduce it to an hour a day. We also both have food allergies, which means groceries are already expensive. We had to cut back, and it’s embarrassing to talk about it. I feel like at my age, I should be more solvent. I am spending around £120 now for two weeks of food, when we were paying around £70 max.
Being disabled is already expensive. If you have health problems and you don’t have gas for your car or for transport, you cannot go to outpatient appointments. If you need to buy splints or supports, or additional over-the-counter medications, it all adds up. All my spare money goes to medical health. I get Pip [personal independence payment, a government benefit] but it doesn’t go far.
When I was a young mother, I was in poverty and often without, trying to meet their health and food needs. These price hikes bring back horrible memories – when I was ashamed because I didn’t know how to do it. Unless you’ve been living hand to mouth, I don’t think you have a clue what it is. It eats at you every night.
Sarah Gibson, 36, Wiltshire
I had been living abroad for around 10 years and moved back to the UK when my child was one year old in June 2021 to raise them as a single mum. My ex pays half the daycare costs for me, which has been great, but it’s been a real struggle to manage financially, despite me earning a pretty good salary and working full-time in communications.
Since April childcare costs have risen by 50p an hour and now stand at £1,277.50 a month. I have used the tax free childcare scheme which gives me 20% off my childcare costs up to £2000 a year but they make it very difficult for anyone lack of time and you have to renew the application every three months.
I was living with my family but recently moved into a new house. Finding accommodation as a single mother is so difficult. Usually with one bedroom units the landlords refuse to have children and there is a huge rent increase for a two bed unit. It means that I had to adopt a different quality of life.
I’m lucky to have returned from New Zealand with savings from my job there, but since everything went up in April, I’ve been eating them and can’t save. Unfortunately, these savings mean that I am not eligible to apply for Universal Credit as I am just above the threshold to qualify.
So many contracts tie you up for power, broadband and so on for over a year, so you’re stuck if you lose your job – or even if I were to move back in with my parents. Financial insecurity is really scary. I dread the winter, when I have to run the heating as part of my housing contract, because energy costs increase again in October.
Ideally I would be notified of where I shop, but I have a toddler and a full time job – I don’t want to spend what little free time I have calculating where the cheapest pasta. The rising cost of food is noticeable, however, and continues to put a dent in my savings.