Life Sucks for Britain's Skint Young Parents
New figures out today show that child poverty isn't getting any better. Poor young Mums and Dads are struggling to make ends meet.
It's Friday night and as other students down discounted booze, briefly forgetting the £60,000 debt and jobless abyss that awaits, Charlotte is standing in the supermarket, mentally scanning Tesco Value items. She has a tenner in her pocket to last the rest of the week. Only it's not just her to worry about. Charlotte's three-year-old daughter Esmée needs to eat and has run out of nappies. A tenner isn't enough.
New statistics, out today, reveal that childhood poverty has flatlined. Households Below Average Income (HBAI) stats show that 3.7 million children are living in relative poverty, unchanged from the figures for 2012 to 2013. That means a quarter of the UK's kids are still growing up officially poor, and that hasn't declined despite the fact that Parliament is committed to eradicating child poverty by 2020.
We hear lots about how Generation Y is screwed. Those born from the early 1980s onwards are faced with soaring rents, unattainable property prices, grotesque fees for further education, high unemployment and a ban on NOS. Grim times. Talked about less are the 680,000 Millennials who become parents every year.
The average age of first-time mothers is now 30, but that still leaves more than 340,000 babies born to women under 30 every year in the UK. Of these, 140,000 new mums are under 25. For these Millennial parents, life is becoming increasingly tough.
"I had to move back to my parents for a while," Charlotte told me. "But there wasn't really room. It was my mum and dad, me and my daughter sharing a bed and my brother and sister.
"I moved into my own place in April but I've had to borrow money again this month just to pay rent. I do get student finance and part housing benefit but it's not enough to pay everything."
Charlotte has only one year left of her sport and exercise science degree but she doesn't think she'll make it to the end and has started job-hunting. Even if she drops out of uni to work, however, she's doubtful about making ends meet, especially with the £200-a-week cost of childcare.
"It just doesn't add up," she says.
Charities agree that things are getting worse for young parents, especially those bringing up children alone and particularly those under 25. With most first-time mothers who register as sole carers being under 25, it's a perfect storm for Generation Y-ers who have already started families.
After the last batch of welfare reforms, under-25-year-olds accounted for 41 percent of all benefit sanctions; single parent families were disproportionally affected, through benefit caps, bedroom tax and changes council tax benefit reduction. It's just been revealed that the number of homeless families living in B&Bs has increased by more than 300 percent in the past five years. With £12 billion more welfare cuts in the pipeline, things are likely to become still more precarious.
What this means is a second generation condemned.
"We're very concerned that further cuts will push even more children into poverty," Octavia Holland, director of policy at single parent family charity, Gingerbread, tells me. "Children who grow up in poverty are less likely to get good qualifications and more likely to remain in poverty as adults."
Gemma has a three-year-old son. Unable to cover the cost of childcare with her wages, she stopped working and was scraping by until her benefits were unexpectedly stopped.
"Three months ago, my circumstances changed and I could no longer claim for child benefit," Gemma told me. "All of my payments were stopped for six weeks and I was handed a £156 cheque to pay for rent, bills and food. For the past couple of months I've been relying on food parcels from Barnardo's Billericay Children's Centre."
Women bear the brunt of this shit storm but being a dad when you're young and skint is not so sweet either. Liam (not his real name) is 23 and has a one-year-old daughter with his 18-year-old girlfriend, Casey. Liam is living with his nan and granddad while Casey lives with her mum.
Liam is waiting for his security industry certificate so he can find work as a bouncer or shopping centre security guard. Casey worked for a while as care assistant on a zero-hours contract but had to quit because the schedule was so unmanageable. They're both waiting for help with council housing – they've been waiting a year.
"We're just basically getting on with it if you know what I mean," Liam told me. "But granddad had pneumonia so my grandparents are housebound as they live in a flat two floors up. Me and Casey don't have anywhere to spend quality time together with our daughter. The only time we're on our own is between places: when we're food-shopping or when we're on the way to her mum's or something."
Strict housing benefit regulations (if you're under 25 you can't claim for anything other than a single room) mean that men are unlikely to be allowed overnight visits from their child on the basis of their accommodation being unsuitable. Organisation like Working With Men, which supports young fathers, say that welfare sanctions have had a direct effect on the ability of single men to form relationships with their children.
Today's childhood poverty statistics are a warning that the chaos heaped onto Millennials is being passed down to the next generation. Javed Khan, the CEO of children's charity Barnardo's tells me, "High childcare costs, harsh sanctions and low wages are making it nigh on impossible for many of the young parents we support to work their way out of poverty".
"I try to make Esmée think everything's normal," Charlotte tells me. "It's just something you have to live through," says Liam. The reality is though, Charlotte will probably have to leave uni and, even if Liam gets a job as a security guard, it's going to be tough for him and Casey to cover living costs.
Welfare cuts are bricks thrown through the already fragile walls people build around their families. It's hard to fight back when you don't even have the basics for survival: money for food, a place of your own.
"I'm so stressed I can't even go out no more," Liam says. "I'm shutting myself away from everyone. There's nothing really I can do."
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