"Is that the point?" So asks Daniel Blake, the lead in Ken Loach's latest film pushed to breaking point by our labyrinthine benefits system. Obstruction and setbacks pile up, but ultimately boil down to this question: what is the purpose of today's welfare system? As the film bluntly illustrates, the system as it stands sets up too many to fail, leaving them with a choice of fighting for support or going it alone.
Loach's plot may seem unrelenting, yet the details ring true. The routine frustrations of brown envelopes with impenetrable DWP letters containing make-or-break decisions and the 'tick-box' processes at Jobcentre Plus are there in full almost-comic glory. As are the implications of the most recent reforms - what does 'digital by default' mean if you're not I.T. savvy or your only internet access is in one-hour stints at a library? These are the unexciting minutiae which sweeping reforms ignore - the forgotten details which mean those who need most support are left behind.
Single parent Katie, the supporting lead, is particularly striking. At the outset, this is a woman determined to make a new home after being rehoused; to study and succeed for her children and herself. But a sanction for being minutes late for a Jobcentre Plus appointment leaves her family with no income. Gingerbread has heard Katie's story time and time again. A single parent at disproportionate risk of unfair sanctions, skipping meals to prioritise food for their children, trying and failing to find flexible work to juggle work and care, wondering what to do when your child's shoes fall apart (again) and there's no spare cash. Beyond the struggle to pay the bills, the film captures how the daily grind of managing with little income takes its emotional toll - and the difference it can make to have someone telling you you're doing OK.
"Added pressure has led to a loss of pleasure in life and feeling very much isolated and alone; life is about surviving rather than living. Home life has become thankless and getting out of this situation seems impossible, whereas before I had hope that things could improve." - Single parent (Gingerbread, 2013)
These aren't isolated examples - this is the daily reality for many single parents. In 2013, Gingerbread's 'Paying the Price' project started looking at single parents' experience of austerity and found 77 per cent of those surveyed were at best struggling to get by. Three years on, our forthcoming final report shows that not much has changed. Worryingly, even those in work find it hard to keep their head above water, feeling the pinch of low pay and a shrinking safety net.
If Theresa May wishes to focus attention on the 'just managing', to "tackle the unfairness and injustice that divides us", she need look no further than the situation of many single parents today. Hardest hit by welfare reforms to date, they will yet again lose most from further cuts in the coming months. Last year's tax credit u-turn will not stop a universal credit work allowance cut creating poorer work incentives, a lower benefit cap cutting income and leaving yet more housing out of reach, a two-child benefit limit penalising those taking on caring responsibilities after separation and a benefit freeze ensuring lowest income families bear the brunt of Brexit-induced inflation. And in the meantime, single parents face expensive childcare, limited flexibility or progression in work and insecure jobs, exposing many to the 'low-pay, no-pay' cycle.
The new government has a chance to make a real difference to the lives of struggling families. Single parents want to work and two-thirds already do so; building on this to ensure security and a decent standard of living for those on low incomes yields benefits to the state and Exchequer, as well as families. But without action, the Prime Minister's words will mean little. At the very least, the government should deliver on its promise that universal credit will make work pay, by reversing the work allowance cut which leaves the average single parent £800 worse off than under tax credits.
Polemic, unsubtle, crusading - however I, Daniel Blake is described (and criticised), it reveals an inescapable truth: people, especially single parents, have been hit hard by austerity and are expected yet again to tighten their belts for the cuts around the corner. When there is already nothing left over, where should they turn?