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Single parents more likely to experience problem debt and to live in persistent poverty

Today (5 February 2021), alongside Gingerbread, the charity for single parent families, we are publishing a new report which shows the UK’s 2 million single parents are more likely than any other sector of society to be living with problem debt [1].

Some 82% of single parents said not having enough income to meet living costs meant they were forced to borrow money and ended up in debt [2].

The research also showed single parents were unable to work their way out of debt.

Counter-intuitively, those who worked full-time hours were more likely to be in problem debt, with increased childcare costs being the main reason for this.

Single parents were more likely to use credit to pay for childcare the more hours they worked: 25% of those working full-time (35 hours or more) paid for childcare by using credit, compared to 17% of those working part-time (16-24 hours) [3].

Victoria Benson, Chief Executive of Gingerbread, said:

“Before the pandemic around 70% of single parents were in work but this didn’t protect them or their children from poverty. It’s shocking that in 2021 so many are forced to go hungry in order to repay debts built up as their income doesn’t even cover basic living costs.

“It’s crucial that the Government protects low-income families from further poverty by maintaining the £20 uplift to Universal Credit beyond April 2021 and removes the benefit cap. Government also must review the childcare offering – it cannot be right that single parents actually work their way into debt rather than out of it.

"Without these crucial changes single parents and their children will continue to experience poverty and to suffer the disadvantage this brings.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as an accelerant for problem debt, exposing more single parent families to poverty. Single parents are more likely to have lost their jobs or to have been furloughed due to working in ‘locked down sectors’ such as hospitality and retail.

In addition, home-schooling is more costly for single parents - they are twice as likely as couple parents to have no ICT equipment at home and twice as likely to have a child on free school meals [4].

As a consequence:

  • 49% of single parents reported taking on more debt since COVID-19 [5]
  • The average amount of debt held by single parents increased by around 15% during the pandemic (an average of more than £600 more debt per household) [6]
  • One in five (22%) said that a temporary increase in the cost of living had negatively impacted their finances since the beginning of COVID-19 [7]
Alongside poverty and high fixed costs, almost half (48%) of single parents who had experienced problem debt had been affected by economic abuse [8].

Those who have suffered economic abuse were more likely to have higher levels of debt, to be forced to make greater sacrifices to meet debt repayments and to be at a greater risk of struggling with their mental health. Many single parents have a child with their former abuser, meaning the abuse may well continue post-separation. For example, just 24% of those who had experienced economic abuse received maintenance payments in full on a regular basis [9].

Being in debt pushed single parents into further poverty – and, in some cases, destitution. This has a detrimental impact on both living standards and mental health for single parents and their children.

Single parents typically seek to protect their children as much as possible from the negative impacts of poverty but, as a result, often experience greater hardship themselves. The report shows that in order to make their debt repayments, 66% of single parents have gone without food and 20% have been forced to cut back on food for their children [10].

In addition:

  • 51% had fallen behind on making rent or mortgage payments as a result of making debt repayments [11]
  • 19% of single parents had to use a food bank as a result of making debt repayments [12]
  • 69% of single parents who were in debt reported struggling with their mental health and 68% of indebted single parents suffered with depression specifically [13]

Phil Andrew, CEO here at StepChange, said: 

“Year after year, we’ve seen disproportionate numbers of single parents coming to StepChange for support and, particularly in light of the pandemic’s damaging effect on people’s finances, it’s never been more crucial to understand why.

"The findings of this report make for sobering reading, revealing that even before the pandemic, squeezed incomes, rising childcare costs and a lack of benefit protection were routinely sweeping single parents into hardship, even among those in work.

"COVID-19 has poured fuel on this fire, with alarming numbers of single parents using food banks and even skipping meals in order to feed their children. 

“If we’re to end the debt trap facing so many single parents, the safety net around them must be strengthened, something the Government can do in the short term by committing to maintain the £20 uplift in Universal Credit, as well as by extending it to those on legacy benefits.”

Following publication of this report StepChange and Gingerbread are calling on the Government to:

  • Maintain the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit payments
  • Extend the £20 uplift to legacy benefits
  • Remove the benefit cap
  • Increase the amount of child support payments that are collected through debt collection and effective enforcement mechanisms to tackle parents who attempt to avoid or minimise agreed child support payments
  • Develop a Minimum Income Commission, as recommended by the Institute for Public Policy Research, similar to the Minimum Wage Commission, with a statutory remit of linking state support to actual living costs
  • Better support low-income families looking to save, including by linking the Help to Save Scheme with UC, and considering how voluntary savings may be prioritised over non-priority Government debt
  • Effectively implement the Financial Conduct Authority’s vulnerability guidance to better support those affected by economic abuse by regulated financial services

Notes to Editors

  1. Single parents disproportionately experience problem debt: prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, 13% of single parents were in severe problem debt. This compares to 5% of couple parents and 4% of single adults. This data is from a national poll of 3,796 adults (including 125 single parents) conducted by YouGov Plc. Fieldwork was undertaken between 15 and 19 May 2020. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
  2. In 2019, 24% of StepChange Debt Charity advice clients were single parents, compared to 6% of UK households. (StepChange Debt Charity, 2020). This is likely to have worsened but further data covering the period of the pandemic hasn’t yet been published.
  3. For further information, case studies or interviews please contact: Fresh Communication: 0117 369 0025, Nathalie Golden: 07769 66 66 27, nathalie@freshcommunication.co.uk , or Lisa Sutherland: 07801 979 987 lisa@freshcommunication.co.uk

Polling data

1,676 single parents responded to the online survey between 21 November 2019 and 20 January 2020.

In addition, Savanta ComRes ran two separate polls of single parents and couple parents (one before COVID-19, and one during) in order to get the broader national picture that was representative of the single/couple parent population in the UK.

This first survey polled 1,047 single and coupled parents, of which 510 were single parents and 537 were coupled parents in England and Wales online from the 24th February to 2nd March. The second survey polled 519 single parents and 531 couple parents between 16th and 26th November 2020. This data was also used to draw comparisons between single parents and couple parents in order to drill down on what specifically made single parents more vulnerable to debt problems and financial hardship, while also tracking for the impact of COVID-19.

You can find the tables for these two polls online by visiting the Savanta ComRes website. To supplement the survey findings, Gingerbread interviewed three single parents who had experienced problem debt. These interviews were used to explore themes and issues raised in the survey.


  1. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, 13% of single parents were in severe problem debt. This compares to 5% of couple parents and 4% of single adults (poll of 3,796 UK adults, COVID-19 figures not yet available). In 2019, 24% of StepChange Debt Charity advice clients were single parents, compared to 6% of UK households. Problem debt refers to being unable to afford credit repayments on a regular basis (three months or more)
  2. Joint Gingerbread/StepChange survey of 1,676 single parents conducted online between 21 November 2019 and 20 January 2020
  3. See reference 2
  4. Understanding Society (2020) Household Data, Wave 9. Gingerbread Analysis
  5. Two separate polls of 500 single parents and 500 couple parents, conducted by Savanta ComRes, one before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and one afterwards
  6. See reference 5
  7. See reference 5
  8. See reference 2. Economic abuse defined as one who had experienced one or more of the following: former partner undermining your ability to maintain economic resources; former partner limiting how you use money and economic resources; former partner controlling how you acquire money and resources
  9. See reference 2
  10. See reference 2
  11. See reference 2
  12. See reference 2
  13. See reference 2

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