The news that most householders affected by the benefit cap are single mothers should not be a surprise – but it should be a shock.
It should not be a surprise, because ever since the government imposed the benefit cap in 2013, it has been clear that a significant proportion of those affected would be parents, especially single parents – and we knew already that most of those are female – although the latest proportion according to the Labour Party is even higher than before.
The cap imposes a blanket limit on the amount of benefit people can receive that only varies according to whether someone has a family or not, and whether they live in London or outside it. The initial limit was calculated in relation to median (average) earnings. It was lowered in 2016, and is now £23,000 per year for a household in Greater London and £20,000 per year outside that area.
But the benefit limit takes no account of the number of children in the family. And although there are certain exemptions - including some people who cannot work because of disability or illness - the main way to escape the benefit cap is to be in work for more than 16 hours per week. It is therefore highly likely that the main group affected will be those caring for several children who have more barriers to employment – including younger children - and this largely means women. So women who are already taking on the responsibility of bringing up children single-handedly are then hit by the benefit cap.
The Child Poverty Action Group, for example, describes one case in which a lone parent with two children already then had twins, one of whom had health problems. Although she was employed before the twins were born, she was not working afterwards – and found herself subject to the benefit cap. The government says that people should consider moving to cheaper accommodation. But single parents will usually have social networks that help them through difficult times – as well as often wanting their children to maintain links with their fathers - so they are likely to find moving very disruptive.
One of the government’s justifications for the benefit cap is that it incentivises people on benefit to work. It claims that its own evaluation showed those affected are 41% more likely to find work than similar claimants who were unaffected. But in reality this only meant an increase of 4.4 percentage points in the numbers in work. In any case, when children are young there is no expectation that the main carer has to look for paid work to get benefit. And when they get older, the government has a system of jobsearch requirements and sanctions, so it is not clear why the benefit cap is necessary.
Another justification given for the benefit cap was that it creates fairness between benefit claimants and taxpayers. But this is not comparing like with like. Those in paid employment may also qualify for a range of benefits – including child benefit, working tax credit and housing benefit – but these are not taken into account when the cap is calculated. And the argument that the benefit cap is needed to contribute to savings ignores the fact that the numbers affected are small – even though they are losing significant amounts as a proportion of their income.
More generally, the knock-on effects of austerity on single parent families have contributed to them being more likely to experience poverty, be sanctioned if they are on benefits, suffer from ill health, and live in temporary private accommodation. Urgent changes are needed to protect the life chances of single parents and their children from the perverse impact of not only the benefit cap but also a range of other welfare reform policies.
The impact of the benefit cap is only one example of how severely the austerity cuts have hit women, particularly minority women, as research by the Women’s Budget Group has demonstrated. The impact of the benefit cap on single parents should therefore be a shock – and, in conjunction with the effects of other recent policies on women in particular, should be a wake-up call for change.
Fran Bennett is a member of the Women’s Budget Group and a senior fellow at Oxford University’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention