‘It’s hard getting money to stretch’: single mothers say they need support

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Kelly Ross, a single mother to her three-year-old son Charlie, has just found out her energy bills are tripling in price, from £94 a month to £292.

With summer holidays on the horizon, there’s not much left in the pot for anything other than essentials, and she finds it hard to escape the constant burden of money worries.

“I think I’m glad that my son is this young at the minute because he doesn’t really know that we’re missing out on things,” the 39-year-old says. “It’s hard getting the money to stretch and still trying to give your child a life for him to look back at with fond memories.”

As she speaks, her son Charlie zooms around Littlethorpe village hall on a trike while other parents and children play and chat. This is her one weekly respite, a free group for struggling parents in the area run by the Leicestershire-based charity Home-Start Horizons.

“Nobody judges. If one day you want to come in crying, they’ll just make you a tea and give you a hug,” she says.

It’s hard getting the money to stretch and still trying to give your child a lifeKelly Ross

Mothers like Ross are facing a bleak winter. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed this week how a decade of austerity, during which vital benefits have been frozen or cut, has resulted in child poverty in single-parent households rising by almost 10% – compared with only 2% for two-parent families. Half of all children being raised by one parent are now in relative poverty.

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It was through the charity that Ross met fellow single mum Jade Robinson, a 30-year-old part-time nursery nurse also caring for her four-year-old son.

Robinson says that while all parents will be struggling with rising costs, for single parents the responsibility can be crippling.

“As a single working mum, it’s very difficult,” she says. “I guess some single parents have their families to rely on to look after their children but I don’t really have that. It’s just literally solely me.

“Here, we just understand each other. You can go and tell somebody else but they don’t have a clue because they’ve never been a single parent.”

She says the introduction of universal credit has made her much worse off and a big chunk of her salary goes on childcare costs. “It’s extortionate. If you want to work full-time, all your wages are going on childcare. It feels as if you’re working for free,” she says. “And if you work over the 16 hours, you don’t get any help with your housing.”

As a single working mum, it’s very difficult … It’s just literally solely meJade Robinson

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Ross, who also works part-time for Leicestershire police, makes the same point: “Even if I went back full-time, I wouldn’t be any better off because of the cost of childcare.”

Elaine Macmanard, the operations manager at Home-Start Horizons, says the charity has never seen so many families facing such financial hardship, and it is often single-parent families who are struggling most.

“We are encountering more families who’ve got debt and I think it’s just creating a tremendous amount of stress and pressure. I’m more aware of it now than ever,” she says. “As a single parent, that responsibility stops with you. You’ve got no one to share that with. It must be a terrible experience.”

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View image in fullscreenKelly Ross and Jade Robinson met at a group for struggling parents run by Leicestershire-based charity Home-Start Horizons. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

The knock-on effect on mental health is also becoming glaringly apparent – before the pandemic, 60% of referrals the charity received identified either a mental health diagnosis or symptoms in parents. This has now risen to 90%.

“I really worry for what’s going to happen come the winter,” she says.

Ross and Robinson are bracing themselves for things to get worse in the coming months, with energy bills due to rise again in October. They fear tough times now are only a taste of what is to come.

“We’ve got no savings to fall back on, and I think things are going to get harder,” Ross said. “I thought my energy bills were going to double but instead they’ve tripled. So I’m going to start the process of cancelling my direct debit and just paying what I can afford.”

In May, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced a £15bn package of aid, with one-off payments totalling £650 to those claiming universal credit and other welfare benefits, split between July and a date yet to be decided for autumn. There will also be £400 to help with energy bills later in the year. Both women are very thankful for the financial support they do receive but hoped the government would step in with more help for struggling families in the coming months.

There’s got to be a whole system change, and it has to start with childcareElaine Macmanard

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Macmanard says one-off payments from the government to help tackle cost of living won’t go far enough. “There’s got to be a whole system change, and it has to start with childcare,” she said. “I think the government have got so removed from real people’s lives, they just don’t understand the stresses at the moment. We’ve never had families homeless like we’re seeing now.

“When you have children, you take it for granted that you’re going to be able to look after them, and keep them happy and healthy. I think if I had little children now, I’m not so confident I would be able to do that.”

Despite the rising stress caused by the cost of living crisis, Ross and Robinson are determined to relish the experience of parenting and making the best of what they have got.

“You don’t choose to be a single parent. You just have to make the best of the situation, and you’ve got to stay humble,” Robinson says. “In many ways I love it. But we’re living paycheck to paycheck, and always wondering where the next meal is going to come from. We’re both relying on me, aren’t we?”

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