While some media might have us believe that most single parents are shunning work in favour of a 'lifestyle' on out-of-work benefits, the reality is starkly different. Single parents are highly motivated to work. After all, they're the sole breadwinners for their families - families which face twice the risk of living in poverty than those headed up by a couple. A job with a decent salary represents their best chance of keeping their children out of poverty.
And politicians agree - if there's one mantra that underpins much of the government's social policy reforms, it's that work is the answer. Whether it's benefit cuts, radical welfare reform, troubled families, or child poverty, the end game is principally based on getting people into (or back to) work. It's an issue that successive governments have failed to resolve - but, despite the promises of a new approach to employment support, our new research shows that this government is no closer to making this a reality.
Gingerbread's latest report looks at single parents' experiences of the package of government-funded employment support, from both the Work Programme and Jobcentre Plus. It explores the job-seeking journeys of single parents and questions whether the support on offer is delivering for them and, ultimately, for the taxpayer.
The coalition government made clear commitments to delivering a more personalised approach to employment support to achieve a step-change in getting people back to work. This includes the promise to give "more responsibility to Jobcentre Plus advisers to assess claimants' individual needs and to offer the support they think most appropriate", as well as, in particular, the Work Programme's aim of "creating a structure that treats people as individuals and allows providers greater freedom to tailor the right support to the individual needs of each claimant".
But in practice, our research shows that this rhetoric is firmly at odds with many single parents' experiences, despite all the evidence showing that the best way to get single parents into work is to offered tailored, personalised support. Instead, single parents are being offered a basic and generic 'one size fits all' service which often doesn't recognise their needs or the barriers they face to work - such as the cost and shortage of childcare, a shortage of family-friendly jobs and the impact this has on making work pay.
The result of this untailored approach is a job outcome rate for single parents in the Work Programme of just 2.5% - a third lower than the overall (and already disappointing) rate for claimants as a whole. Focus on young single parents and this rate drops even further to 2%.
Even if the Jobcentre can only achieve delivery of a more of a basic and generic approach, the Work Programme should be the start of more intensive, targeted support that helps those a bit further away from work - those who have been long-term unemployed, or those who have requested a bit of extra help. As one of the single parents we spoke to said:
"It lifts your spirits a little bit thinking maybe this is different, maybe this is something that is more about me, because that's how they sell it to you - it's more personalised. But actually your experience isn't that different."
Instead single parents found it was groundhog-day. They again were offered basic courses ill-matched with their experience and met with advisers who weren't trained to understand or meet their needs.
We're recommending that the government carries out an urgent review of the service offered to single parents across the Jobcentre and Work Programme, ensuring a clear distinction between the two and putting a renewed focus on getting more single parents into sustainable work that fits, allowing them to balance employment with bringing up their children.