The "Misérables" of the 21st Century

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 might disappear from DWP statistics: "I, Daniel Blake" doesn't say this, but presumably Katie - who would have been subject to jobsearch 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 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 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 significant 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. 


  1. I think your comparison is a little unfair as the film I Daniel Blake told the story of a white male and having read this I think it's a pity a sequel featuring the problems of single parents hasn't been done and I hope it will be. But write in defence of Blake I must.

    I doubt you remember but I met you briefly after a Positive Money conference for about 20 seconds in 2016, on New Years Eve I collapsed with double pneumonia which changed my life, it was my 5th bout of pneumonia in since 2007 and 4th time hospitalised.

    I well remember having the WCA it was exactly like the film. They wanted to know about everything except my condition and I thought pointing out four doctors said I shouldn't work would be enough. I was of course found fit to work as I could raise my hand to my shoulder whilst humming God Save The Queen or some such thing. I scored zero points despite the fact I couldn't walk more than 50 yards, they told me to use a wheelchair. Quite how I was supposed to propel it I don't know.

    I was fortunate to have strong family and social connections, I was mortgage free and could tell them them to stuff their money and did. It was some 8 months before I was back on my feet and against doctors orders I started working from home. I can do most stuff on a PC but I know a lot of the gigs I get are charity and could be far better performed better by someone else and certainly far quicker.

    I'm glad Daniel Blake was made the way it was and that the lead character was who he was the story needed telling. I know you're not saying it shouldn't have been told but the comparison of situations is a little unfair, I know because I was there.

    1. I, Daniel Blake is not just the story of a white male. It is also the story of a single mother with two kids.

      My main issue with the film is that it is not hard-hitting enough and there are too many inconsistencies. For example, Daniel Blake is apparently unfit for work, but is running over to Katie's flat doing all manner of handiwork. I might say that he was too kind and shouldn't have been doing any of that, but nastier people than me might say that it proved he was actually fit for work. The end was sad, but nasty people might say that there is no indication that the heart attack had anything to do with his benefits sanction. I don't think a really strong film would have left loopholes like this open.

      Also, many real-world examples of refused ESA claims, JSA sanctions and appeals are far worse than anything depicted in this film. It could have been really harrowing, but instead it was a rather gentle tale. Frankly I found it about as challenging as the Full Monty - which I remind you is also about unemployment, poverty and benefit claims.

      I'm sorry to hear about your illness.

    2. Thanks Frances, I certainly agree it was bland even the sex work performed by the single mother was sanitised but I suppose it was written to be commercial rather than a documentary.

  2. Sadly you are spot on with most of this. Not sure judgemental attitudes towards single mothers are as common as it might seem, we're still making progress on this IMO. But cruelty or at least callous indifference to the atrocious struggle many low income mothers are facing really does seem to have regressed to pre regency era standards.

    It's incorrect to assume women working in the grey economy would fall out of DWP stats. And a good thing too, otherwise there would likely be many more mental breakdowns, deaths from malnutrition etc. There's too many willing to work in the grey economy in some parts of country for all to make living from it as a sole source of income, so some need both 'work' and still make their claims.

    There's a lot of variation in how demanding the JSA/UC 'proof of job search' is. It depends partly on the discretion of their assigned job worker. (Itself a function of local targets, how much basic decency the worker retains, whether they perceive the mother as a striver, etc.) Few mothers are actually forced to spend the nominal ~34 hours per week looking for work. Once they've uploaded their CV, some just have to log on a few times each week, make a few clicks to apply to jobs, field a few phone calls, make a weekly visit to the job centre, and overall give up less than 10 hours per week of actual time. (AFAIK the job centre workers never explicitly tell the mums they can get away with this though, and Im sure there are some who take the 34 hour thing literally)

    Generally it's middle aged men who are given the least leeway & help by job centre staff, often those who realistically have no option of finding either legit or grey economy work. That said, if one had to choice, relieving the pressure on mothers should be the first priority.

    At least this past couple of months, on both sides of the Atlantic, there seems to have finally been an increase in media attention on the plight of low income mums.

  3. At the risk of posting an unpopular comment, except that it does represent the widespread but unspoken opinion of many...

    Having a baby is always a selfish decision. Nobody forces a woman in the uk to have a baby. And no one ever asked to be thrust into this unforgiving and complex world for a few decades until getting old and dying

    It is also extremely expensive, irrevocable and an onorous responsibility to have and bring up kids, which is why I avoided it.

    Should the state be seen to support the predominantly low educated and poor women who decide that the best thing they can possibly do is to have a baby, when they probably would have difficulty in supporting just themselves?

    There is danger of setting the precedent that having a baby could be a good career move for young and uneducated women. Housing and food paid for, just keep popping out a kid every few years until menopause would in extreme cases extend the child rearing age until 60 or so.

    There seems to abound the idea that because the uk is, superficially at least, wealthy and therefore should protect and support people suffering from the consequences of their own bad decisions and excesses.

    How far should it go?

    It's is however a pity that the UK administration constantly proves itself to be incompetent. Instead of perpetually tinkering with the benefits system, making it incredibly complicated, they should completely revamp and simplify it, leaving less room for local administrators to make random decisions.

    We have to be careful to not draw the conclusion that all single mothers are struggling and living a dreadful life on the streets from a couple of extreme examples.

    I have met many binge drinking away in bars in south east asia and Spain. Somehow they manage to stretch the various benefits to afford this and find somewhere to dump the kids.

    1. 1) The vast majority of single parents are single because of unforeseen circumstances, not because they have chosen to bring up children on their own.

      2) Half of children in households headed by a single parent are living in poverty. Single parents are more likely to be on a very low income than any other group, and less likely to escape from it. These statistics are in the post. What a pity that you didn't bother to read them.

      3) Ten percent of single parents are men.

      4) Lack of affordable childcare is a considerable problem even for middle-income couples. For single parents, it is a major barrier to work.

      5) If you spend your time in bars in south east asia and Spain, no wonder you don't know anything about the real lives of single parents in Britain.

    2. Any statistics breaking down UK single parents by cause (unplanned pregnancy, divorced, widowed etc)?

    3. This is said with genuine great respect Frances. The work you've done on banking , universal income etc has been outstanding. But do we really need to be so hostile to someone brave enough to come over to "enemy territory" and take the time to clearly lay out his views? Our hostility to those who think differently is maybe one of the reasons we on the Left have repeatedly lost this past decade, despite good economics and morality being so clearly on our side.

      Also point 5) is not entirely correct. I'd guess the most likely reason Richard got the wrong ideas from bars is just as his experience is outdated. Around 12 years ago, in many bars along the Spanish coast, English & Irish lasses would sometimes greatly outnumber local women. Some of them were single parents, and by talking to them you could indeed learn about their life's back in UK. Many an unguarded truth revealed in drunken conversations. Fast forward to today though and its near impossible for a single Mum to afford even a three day bender on benefits alone, let alone a flight to Spain. A very few single Mums still go on drink and sex fuelled benders of course, though not typically through any moral failing. To some it seems the only possible relief from an intolerable psychic stress that had been building up for months or years, Mums who have been wrestling with thoughts of suicide due to the idea their children would be better off without them, as they cant see a path to a future where they are not constantly struggling to look after their kids.

      All due to the sustained massive outbreak of callousness which we on the Left have so miserably failed to prevent.

    4. George, no I do not have those statistics. Frankly I hope they don't exist, since they would fuel the demands of those who wish to judge women's morals and treat those they consider "immoral" harshly.

      CS, it is extremely galling to write a well-researched piece, including accurate and reliable statistics, only to have someone completely ignore that research and repeat the mindless judgemental platitudes that have been used for centuries to hurt single mothers, using as "evidence" only his own anecdotes. I feel that both I and the single parents about whom I was writing deserve much more respect.

  4. @Richard, thank you for posting those views, which as you rightly say are widely held. Maybe you don't realise how widely. Including even among some recently forced to turn to universal discredit themselves.

    To answer your ‘how far' question – we'd like to see these problems solved by a universal basic income, one generous enough so there would be little incentive for poor women to have extra babies just to retain a decent amount of income. (Something that did used to happen quite often before the Tories introduced their callous 2 child limit, if no where near as frequently as right wing propaganda would have us believe.)

    The more interesting question is how far *you* want to go?

    It's your side that's winning here Richard, and you have been for over a decade now.

    It's impossible to have a perfect system that 100% protects strivers while not giving any opportunity for shirkers to take advantage. The meaningful choice is between a system that's generous or one that's mean.

    You're right we should beware of over generalising from individual stories, for the big picture we can look to the stats. Tories like to bang on about reductions in absolute poverty, but as per Frances blog & elsewhere, there's a host of other stats showing just how extensive is the suffering faced by single mothers and their families. By several metrics GB now has a higher proportion of children suffering from poverty & food insecurity than the U.S. and even Romania!

    Do current trends need to continue until half the population is in poverty before your side allows an effective modern safety net to be built? Life is indeed getting more unforgiving Richard, at least here in GB. It doesn't have to be that way.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Blaming single mothers for the decline of the UK is about as low as you can get.

  6. "Daniel Blake is apparently unfit for work, but is running over to Katie's flat doing all manner of handiwork. I might say that he was too kind and shouldn't have been doing any of that, but nastier people than me might say that it proved he was actually fit for work."

    I saw him putting some bubble wrap on a window, screwing a door handle and cutting a shelf. He didn't run anywhere either.

  7. Lizzie Cornish, your comment has failed moderation because it makes unacceptable allegations about people with Aspergers syndrome. I will not publish comments that promote hate against people because of race, ethniciticy, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, sickness or class. I hope that is clear.


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