"I'm doing everything I am supposed to be doing but there are all these knock-backs," says 26-year-old mother of one Phillipa over the phone from Bournemouth where she and her 6-year-old daughter live.
Phillipa is a single parent. Hers is the sort of family that is most exposed to rising inflation, according to Labour Party analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
That data shows that single parents like Phillipa with dependent children had £400 in savings between April 2018 and March 2020, compared with other households, which had £8,000.
All told, it makes Phillipa – who is in full-time work as a legal secretary at a law firm – feel insecure.
"I've had to dip into the savings that I did have," she explains, "which means that if I did blow a tyre on my car or something, it would be difficult. I don’t even think I’d be able to pay the excess on my insurance."
Phillipa has done everything right. She has done her best and then some, finding ways to cut the cost of essential items for years.
"We don’t go on holidays, my car is secondhand and I got my phone from CeX [a secondhand electronics retailer]," she continues. "We’re not splashing the cash. But it’s getting a lot harder now."
Phillipa earns £22,000 a year before tax, which is below the national average. From her monthly income of £1,500, plus a meagre £21 a week in child benefit, she is paying for her master's degree so that she can one day become a solicitor – that's on top of £600 a month in rent and the cost of feeding herself and her daughter.
During the school term she pays £60 a week for breakfast and after school clubs so that she can get to and from work on time. During the school holidays she pays £36 per day for holiday clubs so that she can stay at work.
Before Britain emerged from the pandemic lockdowns into an entirely new crisis – economic this time and brought on by soaring costs triggered by an unholy trinity of coronavirus-related supply chain issues, shops putting up their prices and Putin’s war in Ukraine – young women were already up against it.
Back in 2018, academics and economists were already warning that young adults were likely going to be worse off than their parents’ generation for their entire lives. And in 2019, the Women’s Budget Group warned of a gender housing gap that meant there was not a single place in the United Kingdom – not one – where it was affordable for a woman on her own to rent or buy a home.
Inflation is just sticking the knife in.
Claire Reindorp is CEO of the Young Women’s Trust. She tells Refinery29 that the situation is concerning.
"Many young single mums are telling us they’re having an incredibly tough time at the moment," she explains. "Young women are already at the sharp end of this crisis because they tend to be in lower paid jobs than young men and haven’t had the chance to build up any savings. But single mums, who are even more limited in the hours they can work because of their caring responsibilities and the crippling costs of childcare, are really being pushed to the brink."
Like the cost of housing, the cost of childcare ought to be a national scandal. The annual price has gone up by £2,000 since 2010 and according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the UK now has the second highest childcare costs among leading economies.
What’s worse, sending children to nursery is going to get more expensive next year. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has found that government spending on free childcare for young children in England is set to fall by 8% in real terms over the next two years because state investment doesn’t match inflation.
The charity and lobby group Pregnant Then Screwed staged protests across the country recently in an attempt to highlight this issue and get politicians to take notice of the plight of parents, in particular mothers who see their incomes swallowed whole by childcare costs when they go back to work, sometimes making it more lucrative for them to stay at home.
This situation is bad for the economy and bad for gender equality. But the toll it is taking on single mums in particular is serious. In a survey of 4,000 women aged 18 to 30 conducted earlier this year by the Young Women’s Trust, around three quarters of young single mums said they were "filled with dread" at the state of their finances. More than half said they sometimes go hungry so that their children can eat.
Phillipa is not at that stage but she can see how it happens.
"I’m doing everything I am supposed to be doing and I have very little to show for it," she says. "I work full time, I pay taxes. I don’t think anyone in this country should be in a financial position where they can’t afford to have a child. And those of us that do have children are trying desperately to make sure we are able to leave something for our children in whatever form we can but being prevented by a financial situation that we’ve been forced into."
Six years ago, Phillipa did have some support. Her daughter’s father was contributing financially every month. However, he was then sent to prison. "I had to cancel my daughter’s gymnastics class, that was one of the first things to go when it happened," she explains. "He was a great dad and he used to take weeks off over the school holidays and suddenly that was taken away."
"I see a lot of comments about single mothers when we speak out about how difficult things can be," Phillipa adds. "People ask where the father is but I would say anything can happen and your life is changed by death or accident or incarceration just like that. Me and my child are not responsible for [her father’s actions] but we have to live with the fallout, which is losing financial support and a co-parent."
Phillipa paints a bleak picture, which will resonate with many young mums in her situation. What needs to change?
Reindorp says she wants to see the government step up and step in to support young single mums.
"First and foremost that means investing in childcare, the costs of which are astronomical and prevent so many young women from working and earning," she says. "This was conspicuously absent from [Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s] budget, which instead chose to focus on sanctioning part-time workers who can’t increase their hours, a move that won’t help these women at all."
"Many young single mums are also reliant on benefits because of the limits to their working hours," Reindorp adds. "We were relieved to see that these will be increased in line with inflation but given how much young mums are struggling to feed themselves and their children and heat their homes right now, they need more urgent support, too. They can’t hang on like this 'til April."
Phillipa is scathing in her assessment of the government’s grasp of how hard things can be.
"They actively prevent us from pulling ourselves upwards," she concludes. "I get up every day and go to work but I will never own a house. It is absolutely appalling. It's shameful. As a country we should be ashamed."