The “Misérables” of the 21st Century

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On Saturday, I watched Ken Loach’s 2016 film “I, Daniel Blake” for the first time. The following evening, I watched the second episode in the BBC’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel “Les Misérables”. And here is my unpopular opinion. I think that as a parable of the U.K. today, particularly the difficulties experienced by single parents, “Les Misérables” beats “I, Daniel Blake” hands down.

Why? Because Fantine’s story is closer to the experience of single mothers today. True, we don’t (yet) have a market for hair and teeth, and women today are much less likely to die of undiagnosed tuberculosis than they were in the 19th century. But the exorbitant cost of child care, and the fragility of employment, that were so disastrous for Fantine – these are all too often the reality for single parents today. Sadly, “I, Daniel Blake” highlighted neither.

Contrary to popular opinion, the vast majority of single parents want to work. Two-thirds are working, a rise of 10% in the last decade. Despite this, nearly half of children in single parent households are in relative poverty, twice as many as in couple households. Single parents are more likely to be in low-paid work than other groups, and less likely to escape from it.

A key reason for single parents’ inability to find better-quality work is inflexible working patterns and lack of affordable childcare. In a recent report, the charity Gingerbread noted that many single parents are forced to take insecure, casual, short-term and temporary jobs because at least they can flex them round school hours and informal child care from family and friends. Full-time jobs, especially those that involve unsocial hours, can be very hard to manage:
A single parent with a five year old had started work while receiving Universal Credit, but needed to find childcare from 6am to 8pm to cover her working hours (7am-7.15pm). She could not find registered childcare to cover before and after school hours, and had to rely on unregistered childcare instead. However, this meant she was not eligible for any support from the DWP for childcare costs and could no longer afford to work.
Some are pushed into unskilled, insecure forms of work by the very benefits system that is supposed to encourage them to look for better:
A single parent of a three year old is working part-time as a carer, but her employer asked her to start working weekends, when there was no suitable childcare available. She would like to retrain as a nursery assistant to better balance work and care, but this would mean opening a claim for Universal Credit; under this system, she would need to seek and be available for work. Therefore, although training would allow her to enter more sustainable employment as a single parent, she would be expected to give this up should a job become available in the meantime.
In theory, a 21st century Fantine would have support from our social safety net. But that safety net has been progressively shredded over the last decade, with single parents being singled out for particularly harsh and unfair treatment. Punitive benefit sanctions result in single parents who are not working having no income for weeks, months or even years. Like Fantine, they resort to desperate measures simply to survive:
The impact of Kelly’s lost income was acute. She had to sell household items, borrow money from family and friends and rely on food vouchers. She got into debt and could not pay her gas or electricity bills.
Nearly two-thirds of benefit sanctions imposed on single parents are overturned on appeal, a higher percentage than for any other group. But by that time the appeal is heard, the single parent is often deeply in debt, their mental and physical health and that of their children is deteriorating, and they may have suffered additional consequences such as eviction. Not only the social cost, but the cost to the taxpayer of unfair and arbitrary sanctions is horrendous. In 2016, the National Audit Office severely criticised the Government’s sanctions regime for inconsistency and lack of clear purpose.

The minimum sanction for single parents on JSA is loss of benefits for four weeks: this would be for a first offence, such as Katie’s late arrival at the job centre in I, Daniel Blake. In the film, Katie had so few resources that loss of benefits for four weeks forced her to use foodbanks. However, JSA claimants that have dependent children can apply for hardship payments, which cover 60% of the lost benefit (sometimes more) and are payable from the first day of the sanction.

But for Universal Credit recipients, things are much worse. Under Universal Credit, even single parents who are working can be subjected to benefit sanctions that reduce their total income below subsistence level. Furthermore, single parents of three- and four-year-olds must now actively look for work under full conditionality, which means they can be sanctioned (under the Income Support version of JSA, only parents of children 5 and older could be sanctioned). Although single parents subjected to UC sanctions can claim hardship payments, these are not available until 7 days after the start of the sanction and during that time the single parent must comply fully with all work requirements, however unrealistic. Additionally, many claimants are not informed of hardship payments, and applications are not always successful. Furthermore, the hardship payments are now loans, the repayment of which is deducted from future benefits. Sanctions under Universal Credit are thus significantly harsher than those under JSA.

Sanctions are not the only problem. A universal theme throughout Gingerbread’s report is the difficulty, and cost, of obtaining child care. But job centres and work coaches take little account of single parents’ need for child care. Childcare costs are not covered by Universal Credit until the recipient is actually working: quite how a single parent of a three-year-old is supposed to spend 16 hours or more per week looking for work without any childcare is a mystery. For working parents, Universal Credit is supposed to pay childcare costs, but long delays are causing severe difficulties. One mother cited by Gingerbread was forced to leave a good job after only two months because of delayed Universal Credit childcare payments:
Fay found a part-time job and notified the jobcentre. However, she could not afford the up-front cost of nursery fees until she got her first pay cheque. She was not given any help; instead, the jobcentre warned her that she would be sanctioned if she left the job. Although her nursery was initially patient, this was not sustainable and after two months without Universal Credit support for childcare costs, Fay reluctantly was forced to leave an “amazing job” that she enjoyed and had prospects. After making a formal complaint, the sanction warning was lifted but it was too late for Fay as she had already left her job.
This is only one among many examples of the bureaucratic nightmare that is Universal Credit having totally counterproductive effects.

Under Universal Credit, working single parents can be sanctioned for leaving a job because child care arrangements fall through, or if the employer changes the work pattern in a way that leaves them with no child care. Gingerbread’s report is littered with examples of single parents being warned or sanctioned because childcare difficulties make it impossible for them to work. For example, the single parent of a 5-year old cited above discussed her childcare difficulties with the jobcentre. Not only did the jobcentre advisers refuse to help, they threatened her with a sanction if she gave up her job.

One of the most worrying aspects of 21st century social policy is the demands it makes on people’s social networks. I first encountered this when I became my father’s carer in December 2016: everyone I spoke to assumed that I would be able to be my father’s principal source of physical support, despite living 30 miles away and working full-time. It came home to me more forcibly in A&E in April 2017, when my father spent 22 hours on a trolley with no food, no water and no emotional support following the provisional diagnosis of terminal cancer that he was given during that terrible night: when I complained, the nurses replied that people’s families would ensure they had what they needed. I wondered then what happened to people who did not have family close by. But after finding out about my niece’s experience of homelessness, and reading Gingerbread’s report on single parents and benefit sanctions, it has become clear to me that the entire social care system has become dependent on people having good support from family and friends. Gingerbread observes:
In the absence of this state safety net, support networks can be vital. Sasha’s mother stepped in to help with childcare, looking after Sasha’s son part of the week. Sometimes her grandparents help financially from their pension. Kelly also described having to borrow money from family and friends. “Would have been homeless but for family and friends,” she said….
But relying on informal support networks puts them under strain. As my niece found, the longer she was homeless, the more difficult it became to find sofas to sleep on, and the more dangerous the sofas became. So too, with single parents, the longer Universal Credit payments are delayed or sanctions persist, the harder it is to find trustworthy people to look after the kids, provide a meal or lend money to pay bills. Friendships can be lost:
Sasha found that her friends were increasingly not speaking to her after she had to borrow money from them to manage her basic outgoings…
I confess, I am currently ghosting someone who constantly wants to borrow money. I know he is struggling, but I have reached the limit of my ability to help.

And, of course, there are people who have no family and few friends. Fantine, lacking family and friends, trusted her child to an abusive and extortionate couple. This decision cost Cosette her childhood, and Fantine, her looks, her health and eventually her life. What dangers lurk for the Fantines of today when the wrecked benefits system renders them and their children destitute?

It’s not easy to find out how many single mothers who are sanctioned or lose their jobs resort to prostitution, as both Katie and Fantine did. However, a 2012 report by Prisma says that 70% of women working in the sex industry are single mothers, and the principal driver is poverty. It seems likely, therefore, that sanctions and/or job loss would increase the number of women turning to prostitution to keep their kids. However, women working as prostitutes probably disappear from DWP statistics. “I, Daniel Blake” doesn’t say this, but presumably Katie – who would have been subject to work requirements – ended her JSA claim when she took to prostitution: after all, she could hardly look for work while serving clients.

History is circular. We don’t (yet) sentence people to years of hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread. Nor do we consign women to mental institutions for prostitution any more. But we are definitely in the business of forcing people to work even if they can’t, as Daniel Blake discovered. The period of benevolence that peaked in the 1970s has reversed, and we are gradually reverting to a meaner regime. The idea that worklessness is a moral defect which can be “corrected” with harsh treatment is back with a vengeance. It has been shown to be wrong many, many times over the last few centuries: but still we convince ourselves that if we kick people hard enough, they will behave differently. So we apply wholly disproportionate and harmful financial penalties for minor transgressions of arbitrary bureaucratic rules. Then, when we have made people destitute, we blame them for doing what they must to survive. What double standards.

Harsh treatment of single mothers, in particular, has a long and unpleasant history. When the existence of her child was revealed, Fantine was denounced as a “fallen woman” and a “whore” by the (female) supervisor in the factory. Similarly, people watching “I, Daniel Blake” were all too quick to blame Katie Morgan for having two children by two different fathers, neither of whom had stuck around to support their children. Public opinion blames single mothers for being single mothers, and wants to hurt women for daring to have children with men who are abusive (a high proportion of single mothers have experienced domestic violence), or who abandon them, as Félix Tholomyès did Fantine. So although there is no evidence that sanctions are effective in forcing single parents into work, and indeed growing evidence that they are counterproductive, draconian sanctions continue to be imposed, harming single parents and their children across the country. And other policies disproportionately hurt single parents. For example, 85% of those affected by the benefit cap, which is probably the single biggest cause of homelessness among benefit claimants, are single mothers.

But even for couples, judgemental attitudes towards poverty are disastrously driving policy. The two-child limit on child tax credits and Universal Credit is intended to hurt low-income families through their children. There is no other reason for it. It seems that attitudes towards the poor have not changed since Victor Hugo’s time.

I wish I could believe that the cycle will soon reverse, and we will rediscover the lost spirit of Generosity. But I fear this massive outbreak of callousness has further still to run.

Related reading:
A Very British Disease
The Road to the Workhouse
Unhelpful and Unfair? The impact of single parent sanctions – Gingerbread
Les Misérables – Victor Hugo (downloadable e-book) – synopsis on Wikipedia
I, Daniel Blake (synopsis) – Wikipedia
Benefit Sanctions – House of Commons Public Accounts Committee
Benefit Sanctions – National Audit Office

Image is Lily Collins as Fantine, courtesy of the BBC.