Single parent families are a core part of UK society. There were 2.9 million single parents in the UK in 2019 according to the Office of National Statistics and a study by the University of Sheffield concluded that one in three families will experience some period of single parenting.  

Single parents face higher rates of poverty 

The economic circumstances of single parents in the UK are challenging. Despite single parent employment rates being at record highs of almost 70%, the poverty rate of single parents is one of the highest it has ever been with 43% of working age single parents living in poverty. Pre the pandemic, three in ten children in single parent families were living in poverty and there are concerns that this will increase due to the impact of the pandemic. 

Single parent poverty levels and discrimination are linked 

Poverty is intrinsically linked with discrimination creating a vicious cycle whereby single parents face challenges in multiple areas of their lives.

A survey by the campaign group Single Parent Rights with over 1000 single parent respondents – the largest survey of its kind – found that 80% of single parents faced discrimination, including 16% who said they had ‘maybe’ experienced discrimination and then went on to give examples. 

The most common area of discrimination single parents faced was in fees and charges with 66% of respondents reporting this. Single parents repeatedly talked of being charged a “single supplement” which funds discounts for “traditional” families of 2 adults and 2 children. The examples cited ranged from ticket prices for attractions and events, to health insurance. 

This was followed by employment with 59% of respondents highlighting issues with recruitment, redundancy and/ or other issues related to the workplace as creating or exacerbating the discrimination faced by single parents. 

Many respondents reported negative stereotypes and prejudices within the workplace/ recruitment and assumptions being made about single parents’ circumstances and availability; and or a lack of support of single parental responsibilities; for example, being denied flexible working opportunities. 

Bridget*, 40, a single parent from Carmarthenshire, Wales, worked for seven years as administrator with the same company. Her employer requested relocation and an increase in her working hours from 25 to 37. She was refused flexible work despite colleagues getting it. Consequently Bridget was made redundant and due to being unemployed she built up £6000 of debt that she is still repaying. 

Bridget said, “I do believe they were trying to get rid of me because of my child caring responsibilities…It is unfair that single parents’ rights aren’t protected in law when we are a minority group. It is of the utmost importance that we do all we can to ensure single parents are supported adequately in the workplace.”

The truth is most single-parent families are in paid employment but while employment is an important factor to reduce single parents’ risk of poverty, for many, earnings from employment are not sufficient to lift their household out of poverty; leaving a growing number of single parent families in in-work poverty. 

The issue for many is that work is not paying adequately, and childcare costs are exorbitant. The inflexibility of many childcare providers also creates challenges for single parents working irregular or non-standard hours. 

During the Coronavirus pandemic things have worsened for single parent families. 51% of respondents reported discrimination within lockdown rules – from being excluded in the plus one meet-up rule, to being given no support to work from home whilst caring for young children without any support. Single parents found themselves facing greater rates of furlough and redundancy. 

This has taken a toll on single parent families in terms of finances and their mental health. The government, employers and society as a whole have a crucial role to play in ensuring single parent families are supported as the economy and wider society reopens. 

The discrimination does not stop there however. 40% of respondents reported discrimination in finance. 32% reported being discriminated against in government benefit rules, across all income levels.  While 26% of respondents reported being refused rentals purely on their single parent status. 

Lack of legal protections for single parents

Despite the discrimination faced by single parents they are not provided legal protection against discrimination because single parents are not included within the nine protected characteristics of the Equality Act, despite the inclusion of those who are married/ in a civil partnership. 

Certain groups face worse levels of discrimination

The research by Single Parent Rights also showed that those on lower incomes face worse levels of discrimination with discrimination highest amongst those on incomes under £25k. The general trend showed that the more a single parent earned the less discrimination was experienced. 

This is perhaps unsurprising as those on lower incomes are likely to have less choices when it comes to finance products and those on lower incomes are also more likely to be renters as opposed to homeowners and therefore face potential discrimination within the housing rental market. Without additional resources, those on lower incomes also face greater impact from this discrimination. 

With ongoing diversification in family structures, and single-parent families becoming more common it has never been so important to challenge this long-standing inequality. 

Adding single parents as a protected characteristic to the Equality Act alongside those who are married, will ensure policy makers, employers and businesses consider the impact of their policies and practices on single parents and ensure that they are not inadvertently discriminating against them. Where discrimination has occurred, single parents will have a legal route to challenge this. 

This is why Single Parent Rights are pushing for equality for single parents. It is only by tackling discrimination that the high rates of poverty amongst single parent families will be addressed. 

*Name changed to protect anonymity. 

By Kim Woodcock, Single Parent Rights Campaign.