Sally Worrall thought everything was fine with her marriage, but when her husband suddenly left her with four young children – including nine-month-old twins – her life began unravelling.
Since then, Sally says, everything has been about scrimping. She lives a basic lifestyle in order to provide for her children, using food banks and buying everything secondhand.
The latest data from the Department for Work and Pensions reveals that the number of single parents affected by the benefit cap – the limit on the total amount of benefit you can get – has almost doubled since the pandemic hit.
Figures show single parents now account for 62% of those affected by the benefit cap – including 52,000 with a child under the age of five.
The number of single parents impacted by the benefit cap increased from 56,821 to 95,832 during the pandemic – an increase of 39,011, the figures reveal.
“Punishing single parents for a relationship breakdown is not the way to motivate men and women back into work,” Sally tells HuffPost UK, saying the coronavirus crisis has highlighted the hardships that exist.
“I am stuck between a rock and a hard place with no end in sight.”
Sally continued: “I want to work but everything I want to do seems impossible. Childcare is so expensive and even though you can get up to 85% of the costs back, you have to pay upfront and you just cannot save when you are affected by the benefit cap.
“After all my bills are paid, I am left with just £7 a day for me and my four children to live on. That is to pay for clothes, haircuts, top-up food and day-to-day necessities.”
“Punishing single parents for a relationship breakdown is not the way to motivate men and women back into work. I want to work but everything I want to do seems impossible.Sally Worrall
Sally, 30, who has four children: Chester, nine, Rory, seven and four-year-old twins Jenson and Molly, was told she had 39 weeks to find a job after her husband left, or she would be hit by the cap.
She was living in a rented house which she couldn’t afford, so ended up in arrears and eventually being evicted and made homeless.
“I was in rent arrears because of the benefit cap,” Sally explained. “After the 39 weeks, my housing benefit got cut. I was getting £950 a month and that got reduced to £150 a month. The house we were renting couldn’t take housing benefit as it was written in their insurance.
“It was a year before I was actually evicted and this was on top of still dealing with the heartbreak of my relationship suddenly ending.”
Sally, who is from Hampshire, was housed in temporary accommodation for about three months. She had to be helped out by a refuge as with four children, she couldn’t be housed in a bedsit. She was found a two-bedroom flat. “It was in total disrepair and was covered in mould and had puddles on the floor.” she said. “But I was just so grateful we had somewhere and we spent Christmas there.”
Sally and her children were then offered a council property, and now live in a top floor maisonette without a garden. She says affording rent is still a struggle due to the benefit cap.
“My rent is £109 a week and I am having to pay £91 of that because of the benefit cap.” she said. “I researched why I am being hit so much by the benefit cap and it is because I have four children rather than two.
“New rules came in in 2016 to cut the benefit to stop people having extra children. But my twins were born in 2015.
“I still get child tax credits for four children but that will change when I move on to Universal Credit in December. My biggest fear is the initial five weeks wait before the first payment.”
We live a modest life with no luxuries. I don’t have a television package or phone contract and I don’t drink or smoke or get my nails done."Sally Worrall
Sally went back to college to study accountancy but could not afford childcare to work alongside her studies.
She told HuffPost UK she lives a basic lifestyle devoid of luxuries, such as a TV or phone package, and the benefits cap means she won’t get any further help until she is working 16 hours a week.
“We don’t go on holiday, I budget for all my shopping and my children wear second hand clothes and shoes. It was my nine-year-old’s birthday a few months ago and everything I bought him was second hand.
“My children don’t have computer games. We play out all the time and they enjoy reading and playing with toy cars and the simple pleasures in life.
“For me, this is just my life and I deal with it the best I can and try to show my children that no matter what happens, you can get through it.”
Sally says she cannot stretch money any further to save towards childcare. She is hoping life will get easier when her twins start school in September – but knows she will still have the hurdle of school holidays.
“I am hoping I will be able to progress with life once all my children are at school.” she said. “I really want to work, but the logistics of it seem impossible with not being able to pay for childcare or trying to find a job to fit around the children.
“My children’s school does not have an after school club. So I would either have to find a childminder to have them after school or find a job that allows you to finish at 2:30pm.
“A lot of single parents have issues with childcare. If you have not got a second parent who is willing to help or family living nearby, you have no choice but to pay for childcare.
“But if you are hit by the benefit cap which is meant to encourage people to work, you cannot save for the advance payment so it is a vicious cycle.”
She added: “There is a lot of stigma surrounding single parents being on benefits and people give you a bad name or label you a scrounger. It’s not as simple as telling single parents to go and find a job.
“Like me, many single parents actually want to improve and progress their lives but are being held back by the benefit cap.
“Nobody sets out to be a single parent thinking: ‘That sounds a good deal.’”
Campaigners are calling on the government to lift the benefit cap to help single parents and prevent a fresh child poverty crisis.
Victoria Benson, chief executive of Gingerbread, the charity that supports single parent families, told HuffPost UK: “Single parent families like Sally’s are being pushed deeper into poverty by unfair policies and a lack of support from this government.
“It’s not right that so many children in the UK live in poverty and experience disadvantage as a result.”
Joseph Richardson, Gingerbread policy and research officer, described the government policy as “callous” and says the most recent statistics released by the DWP showing the number of single parent households affected by the benefit cap has almost doubled during the Covid-19 crisis speak volumes.
Maintaining the benefit cap during the crisis was a callous decision by the government that has left many households in poverty."Joseph Richardson, Gingerbread
“Single parents now account for 62% of those affected, including 52,000 with a child under five.” he said.
“Maintaining the benefit cap during the crisis was a callous decision by the government that has left many households in poverty.
“There has not yet been any justification for why the benefit cap, which was originally designed to encourage job-seeking, was maintained during the pandemic when families were actively encouraged to self-isolate and look after their children not attending school.
“This has effectively locked households into the benefits cap and once again, it is single parents who have been among the hardest hit by the government’s response to the crisis.”
He added: “The benefit cap has never worked – Covid-19 merely brings its inherent flaws to the fore. It’s high time this policy was brought to an end.”