The UK's Blind Spots: Let's Not Forget the Single Parents in Need

17/11/2011 18:42 GMT | Updated 17/01/2012 10:12 GMT

It never fails to impress me how many people are willing to join together under the banner of Pudsey's spotty hanky to raise money for the UK's most disadvantaged children. And it's no surprise that many of these children come from homes that have fallen below the poverty line.

The government, charities and the media present us with a range of explanations for the problem of child poverty in the UK, but sadly it seems that, when confronted with a troubled kid facing a dim future, the kneejerk reaction is still to blame the parents. And where better to find evidence for this view but in the outdated, yet strangely potent, stereotype of the feckless and lazy single parent?

We all know the story. That one about the single mum living rent-free in a six-bedroom townhouse, shirking employment in favour of living off the state. Barely out of her teens herself, her army of children runs wild in the streets while she spends the tax-payers' hard-earned cash on fags and satellite TV. You need only look at some of the post-riots coverage to see how prevalent these stereotypes still are.

But pushing the sensationalist headlines aside, the reality of being a single parent in Britain today is actually rather conventional. One in four households with dependent children is headed up by a single parent, and 3 million children are currently being raised by single parents. The average age of a single parent is 37; only 2% are teenagers and 10% are single fathers. And, perhaps most at odds with the media's caricature, over half of single parents (57%) are in work.

However, children from single parent families face twice the risk of growing up in poverty as children from families with two parents living together. Clearly there is a problem here - so why is the UK so quick to help the children in need but so eager to dismiss their parents?

Gingerbread works nationally and locally, for and with single parent families, to improve their lives. We recognise the brilliant work being done by Britain's 1.9 million single parents, often under very challenging circumstances. We provide expert advice, practical support and campaign for single parents. We tackle the issues they tell us matter to them and make sure their voices are heard - honestly and fairly.

Our website is packed full of expert advice and information on subjects ranging from child maintenance to tax credits, and lets single parents share their experiences and get involved with our work. We also run a single parent helpline (0808 802 0925) which means expert advice is only a free phone call away.

Gingerbread has a membership base of over 30,000 single parents. Our online forums are buzzing with lively discussions and debate, providing often isolated single parents with a supportive place to chat. We also work hard to give our members access to special offers and discounts that can help make family life more fun.

Gingerbread works directly with single parents, and the advisers and practitioners who support them, to provide training, employability and confidence-building programmes. Partnerships with Marks & Spencer and Barclaycard have provided many single parents with a supportive route back into the workplace.

However, paid work does not always guarantee freedom from financial hardship. Pressures on already stretched incomes are often made worse by policies which put single parents at a disadvantage. 25% of single parent families where the parent works part time are classed as living in poverty, and the situation is barely better for those that work full time, with 19% living under the poverty threshold.

Gingerbread campaigns hard to ensure that single parent families receive a fair deal. Recently we've been challenging government proposals to charge parents to access the Child Support Agency, which helps secure child maintenance payments for children.

Our members responded to this issue in droves, telling us that the fees would, in almost half of cases, price them out of accessing this essential support completely. These findings fly in the face of government assumptions that paying fees to use the child maintenance service or coming to private arrangements are realistic options for the majority of separated parents.

It's in making assumptions about single parents that the roots of the problems facing them and their children lie. Assuming that all single parents are the same simply because they're raising a child alone reduces almost 2 million people in Britain to a stereotype that's way out of touch with reality. If Britain can recognise its own blind spots when it comes to the diversity of family life, perhaps Pudsey's spotty hanky can have even more of an impact.