London may be leading the United Kingdom out of recession, but figures show the capital is still off-limits for unemployed parents. With one in four households unable to meet housing costs without benefits, is London really a progressive force for the unemployed?
A single parent, living in London, struggling to survive
Jean* became a single parent in 2012. She was a stay-at-home mother relying on her partner’s income while training to start up her own business as a childcare provider. On benefits after the break-up, she and her son could not find a house in London.
They moved back to Birmingham, where her family lives. She says: “The difference between rents was staggering. [In London] I was paying £900 a month for a second-floor two-bedroom flat, in Birmingham I could afford a two-bedroom house with garden on a quiet residential road for £500 per month.”
Jean has now returned to London to find a job and keep her family together. She pays nearly £1,200 a month for another two-bedroom flat. She says: “My monthly housing benefit is £200 less than my rent. I have been told by the Job Centre today that I may be liable for benefit capping [where households cannot receive more than £500 per week in benefits].”
London housing costs cause “disillusionment and worry”
Jean is composed but eager to share her experience, which is marked by worry and disillusion. She doesn’t see herself as a “scumbag” living on benefits. She says: “I was previously employed from the age of 16, I worked through college and paid my own university fees while working full-time, I have been a working parent, a single parent, a work-at-home parent and a student-parent.”
Jean has considered all her options to work, but she still sees no way out: she says that even with the Working Tax Credits she would be eligible for, she would have only £110 a month to live off.
Parental unemployment a huge issue
In October, the London Mayor Boris Johnson said that behind housing, parental unemployment was the second biggest problem faced by the capital. He now promises to create 20,000 part-time jobs to make it easier for parents to re-enter the job market.
Liberal Democrat and London Assembly Member Stephen Knight says: “The Mayor has not yet told us how many of the 20,000 part time jobs he has created so far but this is an issue on which I will continue to press him.”
Every week, Jean fears she will not be able to buy enough food for her son. She says: “I plan our meals for three days at a time because I can never afford to get a whole week’s worth of shopping in one go.”
Earnestly, she says: “This weekend I had a shortfall in my savings, and yesterday I had to go to a friend’s house for dinner, because I had no food or money. My son is with his father this weekend.”
The April 2013 cap is causing hardship
The latest London’s Poverty Profile (LPP) report shows the coalition Government’s April 2013 cap on housing benefits for workless working-age families allows unemployed households only £500 per week. This means they will not get enough money from the Government to get by.
Jean says: “I have to pay each bill separately, depending on which day my benefits go into my bank. We currently have no Internet or home phone because I cannot afford it.
“My mobile phone has been disconnected because I cannot afford to pay the bill until when my next income support payment is due and we are using emergency credit on our electricity meter.”
The report says: “Even though a family with two children could claim £290 before being affected by the LHA cap, their combined benefit income would exceed the overall benefit cap of £500 per week. As a result a workless couple with two children could only claim up to £239 in LHA.”
Negative attitudes hold back unemployed Londoners
Jean thinks people’s general attitude towards unemployed parents in London is unhelpful. She says: “While looking for a flat to rent here I was almost laughed out at by estate agents when I mentioned housing benefit.”
North London estate agent Nick Kyriacou says the decision to let a house to tenants on benefits is down to landlords. He says: “Most landlords tend to prefer professional tenants, especially in this area.”
Tim Nichols, from the Child Poverty Action Group, thinks more money should be invested on getting parents back to work – as long as it is invested on the right schemes. He says: “Too often at the moment we’re seeing Government schemes that are put forward with a lot of fanfare around them but [they] are not making much of a difference.”
Nichols says it is essential for the Mayor of London to look at the relationship parents have with employers. He says: “There is more that the London government and mayor can be doing. You need employers that are sympathetic and understanding, like if you have a sick child staying home from school.”
The media’s perception of the unemployed
For Jean, the perception of unemployed parents has been negatively influenced by media stunts like Channel 4’s Benefits Street. She says the show presents “parents who are struggling to support their families, unconfident” as “scumbags”.
Katherine Travell, managing director for a recruitment agency, says finding a job after becoming a parent is hard in London. She says: “It’s much easier to find a job, get pregnant and then work flexible hours rather than start looking for a job with a child.”
She adds: “Why aren’t there more high-skilled part-time job ads? Because they all go to people that are already in the business. Once you’re in you have the right to request flexible hours and make your rights heard, but if you’re starting as an unemployed parent it’s going to be much harder to find a job.”
Travell says not all is lost for unemployed parents in high-skilled jobs. “UK companies like REC, Unilever and Plantronics have flexibility schemes that are supposed to help employers work their way around their job’s schedule.”
However, Travell says that especially in low-skilled jobs, employers are more likely to take on childless applicants because they have a less demanding work schedule: “Especially in times of recession, realistically employers will be put off if you say, ‘I can work nine to five BUT every Friday I need to get off work early because otherwise childcare is too expensive.’”
Negative stigma of unemployed Londoners still strong
Despite the rise of new office practices, the stigma surrounding the unemployed doesn’t seem to have left London yet.
Jean says: “Raising children is hard enough, let alone with the anxieties of living in what is essentially poverty, worrying about the stigma of our personal circumstances and then being labeled a ‘scumbag’ and worse. I don’t want my child to grow up like this, but at the moment it really is the only option for me.“
Jean*’s name has been changed to protect anonymity.
Graphs courtesy of London Poverty Profile