The government announced today that single parents on benefits with children over one year are expected to find work or else face sanctions.
This is a move that beggars belief, for several reasons.
Firstly, couples on benefits with children are not expected to find work until their children are seven. This smacks of discrimination against lone parents – are we still making a moral judgment based on the marital status of a parent?
Secondly, this move makes rather blatant assumptions about the availability of good-quality childcare in every part of the UK, something that is clearly not the case. Where are parents supposed to leave their children?
Thirdly, starting to work costs money upfront. Not only for childcare when the parent is working, but also for childcare when going to interviews. For suitable clothing. For transport to and from work. For lunches that need to be bought when at work. Who covers the cost for that?
Fourthly – and most importantly – the minimum wage does not provide a living wage, especially not when seeking good childcare. Already, millions of people on low incomes or benefits take out revolving loans with doorstep lenders at interest rates of up to 186% to cover basic costs of living. Forcing lone parents into work without ensuring that their wages can cover increased costs of good quality child care will only add to their debt load.
We finally need to start a discussion on living wages and living benefits, and of stable jobs worth doing for a living. Furthermore, it needs to be acknowledged that many low-skill jobs are very unstable, and many companies operate a hire- and fire policy. In a current recession, this will only become more common place. Full employment is now more unattainable than ever. Building skills and confidence as the Government proposes to do is a good thing, but it is not the only prerequisite of securing a stable job – the availability of jobs is a rather more important factor.
The Government needs to provide far more carrots than a vague promise that only those who will not take steps to return to work will be sanctioned. I can’t imagine that the level of trust in the Government is very high among benefit recipients, and applying the stick is certainly not going to change this.