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Young Parents Trapped By Welfare System

At a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation event on destitution in the UK, a government minister claimed the government had, since 2010, performed a “jobs miracle”. Citing record levels of employment, he extolled the virtues and redemptive power of education and employment for those living in poverty. Presenting employment as the panacea for poverty is nothing new, nor is it the only thing breaking records.

Since 2010, in-work poverty has soared, reaching record highs. At 4in10: London’s Child Poverty Network, we spoke to some of the youngest and lowest paid parents to find out if employment is really working for them.

The workplace is increasingly hard for young people: following the 2008 economic recession, workers under 25 have experienced a sharp rise in insecure employment, the biggest fall in wages, and the highest unemployment rates for any age group. Low-paid, insecure employment often comes with fewer rights and protections such as paid sick leave, paid holiday or paid maternity leave – vital for workers with caring responsibilities.

These roles also often entail non-standard working hours – long shifts on weekends or in the evenings – and irregular shift patterns. Finding childcare that can accommodate this type of work is difficult, more often than not formal childcare is set up to meet the needs of parents working more traditional Monday-to-Friday 9-to-5 hours and does not have the flexibility to meet the needs of workers on these types of contracts. 

As a result, many young parents rely on family for informal childcare and if that isn’t available, are forced to leave work altogether. 

Low-paid work is often insecure, resulting in an unstable and changing income, which traps young parents. With limited income, they are unable to accrue savings and build financial resilience, leaving them vulnerable to financial shocks. Financial difficulties can be hard to resolve, and can quickly escalate into unmanageable problem debt if young parents have to resort to high-interest credit to pay their rent, utility bills and other necessities.

Pay discrimination against under 25s remains legal - the rationale for this is their presumed lack of experience. Meanwhile, the justification for low rates of pay are that the tasks involved in the job require neither skill nor experience. Understandably, then many young workers in low paid jobs feel short-changed compared to their older colleagues doing the same tasks for a lower rate of pay. For young workers with dependent children experiencing the same demands on their income as parents over the age of 25, the lack of parity can be even harder to rationalise.

Support from job centres and work coaches should be personalised and appropriate to helping young parents to overcome barriers to employment and into quality, secure work. However, the welfare system is increasingly depersonalised and punitive, presenting unemployment as an individual’s choice and pursuing behaviour change through the use of sanctions. Sanctions do not help young parents overcome the barriers they face in seeking employment, but rather, it can trigger profoundly negative personal and financial outcomes, driving young parents away from the services they could most benefit from. 

Moreover, young parents in- and out-of-work have been hit hard by changes to our tax and welfare system. The on-going freeze on working-age benefits and the withdrawal of the family element of support for new tax credit and universal credit claims means the worst effects are yet to come.  

Given the acute shortage of affordable housing, many young parents are in expensive private rented accommodation, the costs of which – for those newly entering the housing market, and the lowest income families in particular – have risen at a much faster rate than for higher-income families. The cumulative impact of insecure, low paid employment and diminishing state support means many young parents are at greater risk of homelessness, putting them at the forefront of the UK’s housing crisis, particularly in London where we at 4in10 operate. 

Low-paid, insecure work is a trap. Far from being a route out of poverty, it can catch young parents in a deepening cycle of precariousness. Every worker should be entitled to the same rate of minimum wage, regardless of age; the right to a fixed hours contract; and quality jobs that provide a steady and secure wage they can live on.  We need infrastructure that enables parents to enter and stay in work, including childcare that is flexible and affordable, to meet the needs of working parents. 

There is much that both the UK Government and employers could do to reduce in-work poverty, and to support those out of work, which would make a huge difference for low-income families, in particular, young parents. By doing so, they could free thousands of working families from the constraints of poverty and claim their ‘miracle’. 

For more on young parents and the barriers and opportunities in employment, see our research ‘Young Parents: Living with Precariousness’. 

Sian Elliot is the Research Learning Officer at 4in10.