17/04/2018 08:04 BST | Updated 17/04/2018 10:53 BST

I'm A Single Mother And Universal Credit Has Only Made Life Harder

I have a degree, I’m educated and capable - but I feel trapped

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As any parent knows, it’s hard to balance work and childcare. Childcare costs so much, for example in London this starts at about £60 per week (for before- and after-school care) and in holidays at least £300 a week! What you earn at work doesn’t necessarily even cover that.

As a single mum, it feels like there are more challenges to overcome. I have one income for me and my 10 year old daughter to try to cover everything we need – and I mean essentials like gas, electricity, food, rent, council tax, etc, I’m not talking about a holiday in the Bahamas! And there’s nobody to help with sharing the pick-ups and drop-offs – making my working hours tricky to manage.

Then there is Universal Credit, which from my experience has made life even more difficult.

The experience I want to tell you about begins when I was in a full-time job but just couldn’t make it work. The hours were long and sometimes involved weekend working. Especially in the school holidays, the cost of making sure my daughter was looked after when I was at work was more than I could afford. I received some in work benefits through Universal Credit, which in theory should make the finances stack up. But they didn’t.

So I found an alternative part-time, zero hours job as a carer, which I thought would work better alongside looking after my daughter. I let the jobcentre know the issues I was facing and how I planned to resolve them. ‘Fair enough’, was my work coach’s response. The government says that single parents aren’t expected to work full-time hours because of these exact challenges.

But months down the line, the tick box approach that they’re taking to Universal Credit came back to bite me. Nine months after changing my job, I was told I hadn’t given a ‘good enough’ reason for leaving full-time work and that my Universal Credit payments would be sanctioned for three months. That’s three months of money withheld that I use to pay for food, gas and electric… I was in dire straits.

I even turned to foodbanks for support when I really, really had to. What was I meant to do?

I begged a lot of help from my mum who made sure my daughter didn’t go hungry – not that my mum has much money to give and she has her own stresses and strains to contend with. I even turned to foodbanks for support when I really, really had to. What was I meant to do? I had to feed my daughter and keep the lights on.

This didn’t just cause practical problems and debt though. The Universal Credit sanction also made me incredibly stressed and worried. I was still going to work to bring in the pay from my caring job – but I never knew how much money I’d have from month to month, so the favours I needed mounted up. Even friends had to help out.

Of course I appealed the sanctions decision. But that didn’t get me very far. I was asked for evidence I couldn’t gather, since it had been so long since I moved jobs. It took six weeks for my appeal to even be acknowledged, stretching out the stress and worry even more. Plus the reason I had for moving hadn’t changed and remains something that the jobcentre seems to agree on – that balancing childcare and a full-time job as a single parent just isn’t always possible. Despite all of that, the appeal was rejected.

I might be working but I still have to go to the jobcentre regularly. I feel like I spend my time repeating information I’ve shared already – either online or with the many different people I meet with each time I go. And because jobcentres are only open limited hours and I’m working, my daughter has to spend Saturdays coming with me to appointments. Without evening opening hours though, working parents like me have no choice.

I have a degree, I’m educated and capable, and I want to work and provide for my family. But I feel that I am trapped by the situations and systems around me. Unless something changes to prevent unnecessary sanctions like the one I received, many more people will be trapped along with me.

Sara is a single mother of a ten-year-old, living in south-east England. Click here for more information on Gingerbrea, the charity for single parents