OPFS scenario planning to prepare for moving out of COVID-19 lockdown

Last updated: 22/05/2020

CTA Image

COVID-19 is a global public health crisis which is rapidly developing into an unparalleled economic catastrophe. Before this crisis single parent families already faced significant challenges: poverty, isolation and loneliness, poor health or disability and judgemental attitudes. The lockdown has left many single parents isolated, lonely and cut off from their networks. Social isolation and distancing has been linked to increased anxiety, depression, stress and other negative feelings which can have a detrimental effect on health and wellbeing. These risk factors are also associated with poverty, which in itself increases the likelihood of social isolation.

Nearly half of households with dependent children in Scotland find themselves in the two most serious categories of financial stress – ‘in serious financial difficulty’ or ‘struggling to make ends meet’. This amounts to 300,000 households in Scotland. This compares to just under one in three (30 per cent) of all households in Scotland reporting the same levels of financial stress, itself a shocking figure. One in five (20 per cent) of households with dependent children in Scotland (100,000 households) were in the most worrying financial circumstances – ‘in serious financial difficulty’ – compared to 12 per cent of all households in Scotland. This is the group most likely to be struggling to pay for food or essential items.

We are extremely troubled about the impact of this crisis on every child affected by poverty. We are also concerned about the longer-term impact on Scotland’s aspiration to reduce child poverty by 2030. The steps we take should not only support families now but also underpin progress towards ending child poverty. Those steps must also be consistent with a children’s rights approach by continuing to protect children’s economic and social rights as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Single parent families, especially those with health conditions and disabilities, are suffering disproportionately from the current economic crisis. A report in May 2020 by the Institute for Social and Economic Research shows the pandemic is deepening UK inequalities. If government support continues to fail to address this, it will lock in ‘building back worse’.

Scotland's route map through and out of the crisis

The Scottish Government publication ‘COVID-19 – Framework for Decision Making Scotland’s route map through and out of the crisis’ sets out the phases by which Scottish Government aims to ease lockdown.

They are gradual and incremental and will be matched with careful monitoring of the virus. The publication highlights that the harmful effects on the economy of the crisis impacts hardest on families with low incomes and people who were already experiencing the effects of inequality. For example, the impact for women who take the disproportionate share of caring responsibilities (paid and unpaid), means they are likely to experience particular disadvantage. It states:

“We will take the chance, as we emerge from this period, to chart a better way forward in support of all of Scotland. As we move forward, we want not simply to return to where we were, but to build on the innovative responses seen throughout the crisis to build a Fairer Scotland. We will use the lessons learned during the pandemic to help us make progress towards our long-term outcomes of lower, poverty levels, greater equality, inclusive communities and respected and enhanced realisation of human rights.”

The national approach to moving out of lockdown must aim for a “new normal” and an economy and society that is fairer and more sustainable. Achieving these ambitions will require continued progress toward meeting national child poverty targets. Even before the current coronavirus crisis nearly one in four, 230,000, of Scotland’s children were growing up in poverty.

Some families are particularly affected by the crisis as they face multiple disadvantages – those priority families identified in the Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan “Every Child Every Chance” – single parents, families with a disabled adult or child, young mothers, minority ethnic families, families with a child under 1, and larger families.

This page has abbreviated text from the full document. Please download the PDF to read the full version.

Download COVID-19 Future Planning

OPFS Planning Ahead: Our Approach

OPFS as an organisation must be take the crisis as an opportunity to contribute single parents experiences and views to help transform Scotland in a radically positive direction. Scenario planning is a structured way for OPFS to think about the future. We look at how the future might unfold and how those future conditions could impact the organisation and the single parent families we work with. The diagram below shows how scenario planning is the central connection in our organisational strategy; forecasting, using data from the past to estimate future trends; and environmental analysis to look at factors external to OPFS that may impact on the effectiveness of our work.

Coronavirus Impact - Scenario Planning

OPFS is using this model to look at the way forward in a strategic way taking account of how coronavirus might impact OPFS itself and the single parent families we work with.

The model has 4 quarters within which we are looking at opportunities and challenges. The analysis below is based on feedback from single parents, OPFS Managers and staff. This is a living document and will develop as the implications post lockdown become clearer.

OPFS as an Employer

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on all employers across Scotland, including the third sector.

Key Challenges over the next year include:

  • It has been announced that early learning and childcare services’ can reopen on the 15 June 2020. This guidance applies to all providers of registered day care of children’s services, including nurseries, playgroups, family centres and crèches who provide care to children under school age. However, concerns have been expressed by childcare staff about nursery sessions being able to be given safely for all children and families involved.
  • Some staff will need to remote work as social distancing is encouraged and some have underlying health issues.
  • Demonstrate how our organisation can work together on a unified mission and vision during the ongoing economic & social crisis.
  • OPFS is on a steep learning curve with digital and has had to make decisions rapidly. We should expect this to continue at every level of the organisation. This could change the culture of OPFS as we know it.

Opportunities – some examples for this quadrant might be:

  • Remote working is here to stay. The organisation will develop universal rules about remote work that could strengthen colleagues work satisfaction in the future.
  • Organisation will develop emergency response protocols that are useful for a variety of emergencies.
  • Funders un-restricting previous grants so grantees can be agile and address community needs.
  • Digital service delivery will expand. For example, developing virtual events on Facebook with the potential to increase numbers using face to face group sessions with 12 parents to reaching hundreds on Facebook live broadcasts and increasing followers on the platform. However, when it becomes safe, face to face services will still be a central and crucial part of the ‘new normal’. We will not innovate for its own sake but will build on what we know works with single parents because they tell us.
  • There is a strong possibility of large-scale unemployment. Family support can, and does, keep families from falling into mental health issues. This is key area where OPFS has skilled staff with the required expertise.

OPFS as a single parent organisation

Many single parents find themselves in debt to pay for necessities like food, clothing and housing because their income, often from low wages, doesn’t meet their basic living costs.  COVID-19 and lock-down has intensified this situation, as single parents face increased living costs and further cuts to their income.

Single parents in paid work, are often in the low paid jobs which are furloughed and so they have lost 20% of their income. At the same time, they have had to cover the costs of having children at home who are not attending school (food, energy costs, home-schooling resources). As well as this, some single parents are receiving reduced or no child maintenance payments from the non-resident parent because they have lost their job, or they are on a reduced 80% wage. Moreover, the Child Maintenance Service is running a reduced service which means it won’t be chasing non-payment or taking enforcement action. Taking this context into account, what are the challenges facing single parents as we emerge from lockdown?

Key Challenges for Single Parents

Short to Medium-Term

  • Higher unemployment when employers are asked to contribute to furlough pay in August.
  • Conditionality reintroduced so pressure on some single parents to return to work while childcare not available and worries about children’s health and safety.
  • The ending of measures put in place to alleviate lock-down i.e. court action for housing arrears suspended – no indication that these measures will be extended.
  • Quarterly fuel bills coming in much higher due to lock-down and existing grant opportunities drying up.
  • Children with learning difficulties and disabilities being affected by the move from nursery/ primary school to primary/ secondary school as children with conditions like autism often can’t cope with change.
  • Ensuring parents whose child starts school are able to apply for best start grant/ free school meals / school uniform and supported to move onto U.C.
  • Many single parents have been unable to do home schooling at all and the children are not in any form of routine. Some parents (Falkirk) struggled to get their children to school before this so there is likely to be difficulties when schools do start to open again. As this is a known issue, preparatory work will be needed with families.
  • Parents worried about what the future will hold for them as they feel they are living on the edge anyway and are aware of the state of the economy. Those single parents who were planning to get back to work when the 1140hrs came in are unsure now because the government have advised that this can be put on hold with individual councils deciding whether they can fulfil any of it or not.

Medium to Long-Term

  • Effect of recession on employment, income and increased costs.
  • Worries about potentially reduced day care and out of school care caused by pandemic.
  • Digital exclusion faced by so many single parent families will impact on children’s education and closing the opportunity gap.
  • The impact on the mental health and wellbeing of parents and children caused by lock down coming to the fore. Without support /interventions some single parents mental health will have deteriorated to a concerning level.
  • Real concerns that many single parents we support will have taken backward steps in areas they were progressing in. They will continue to need quite intense support to help them regain what has been lost during this very difficult time.
  • Aside from the structural/benefit/policy barriers that single parents face (benefit cap/ 2 child policy / universal credit (UC) conditionality) concerns about what the job market is going to look like and what kind of support there will be for single parents to enter it. Across Scotland there was minimal dedicated support for single parents seeking employment before this, so it is a worry what will exist after. Single parents are mentioned in policy documents, but we have not seen much proof on the ground (at Job Centres or from Fair Start).
  • The delay in the introduction of Disability Assistance for children and other devolved benefits which were also pushed back.
  • Delay in the introduction of Scottish Child Payment.
  • Temp £500 free overdraft being ended at a time when in-work poverty will be on the rise and other support measures being paired back or stopped.

Long-Term

  • Many single parents will be exposed to housing insecurity, depressed living standards and hardship, an increase in health problems, and higher levels of unemployment. In addition to the cost to individuals and families, prolonged financial difficulty will have public costs and slow economic recovery.
  • 52 week increase to UC and Working Tax Credits stop and UC and Working Tax Credit returns to basic level will cause parents to struggle with budgeting and will lead to increased level of debt.
  • Scottish Child Payment (SCP) reduction: The SCP will be phased in firstly for children under 6yrs by Dec 2020, then for children 6yrs and over at the end of 2022. For parents whose child turns 6yrs before the end of 2022 there will be a gap in payments, and they will find themselves with reduced income after getting used to an extra £10 per week.
  • Single Parents who were already isolated and suffering from mental health and wellbeing issues will be more vulnerable in 9/12 months’ time. Our OPFS frontline workers are anticipating a ‘mental health storm’ as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown.As well as families who are currently engaging with our services, practitioners are concerned about families who in the past were just about coping but are now struggling to access food and are suffering financial hardship as a result of the current crisis. With the lockdown they may have lost family support with childcare. Continued support in this area will be a high priority. Access to more mental health services – many of which were being cut before this pandemic took place – will be needed for both adults and children.
  • If our future is economic uncertainty and rolling lockdowns employers may rely even more heavily on short-term contracts to manage risk. Single parents could move in and out of employment more frequently or find their hours cut.
  • Single parents will be at higher risk of isolation, experience greater financial stress and find it harder to access overstretched mental health services. The need for a high-quality employment service which includes single parent tailored provision will be massive.

In the longer term if government continues with an approach building on neoliberal economic systems and ideologies and prioritises economic growth, reduces market regulations and imposes strict austerity measures to curtail public debt, single parents will be one group facing increased poverty and inequality, declining family wellbeing and decreased life expectancy

Opportunities for Single Parents over next 12 mths

It is very challenging to see positive opportunities over the coming period.

  • Single parent families would benefit from the policy agenda proposed by the Wellbeing Economy Alliance. They offer 10 principles for responding to COVID-19 of which the following would specifically offer hope for single parents:
    • Policies to ‘build back better’ in response to COVID-19 by prioritising human health, wellbeing, and ecological stability in the long term.
    • Universal basic services which ‘guarantee needs satisfaction for everyone, including through health care coverage for the whole population free of charge at point of access; universal free provision or vouchers for basic levels of water, electricity, gas, housing, food, mobility, education.’
    • Guaranteed livelihoods which ‘ensures everyone has the means for decent living, for instance through income and/or job guarantees, redistribution of employment through working-time reduction’
    • Fair distribution which ‘creates more equal societies nationally and globally through a fair distribution of resources and opportunities. For example, more progressive and environmentally orientated income and wealth taxation; public/common ownership of key resources and infrastructure.’
  • If government interventions to create new jobs over the short term are inclusive, gender-balanced, and contribute to labour participation of women, people with disability, and excluded groups, then single parents would benefit.
  • If care work, whether paid or unpaid, is central to any recovery plan and women’s economic justice is a key objective, then single parents would gain.
  • Single parents would benefit if more flexible modes of working are pursued for example through a “Centre for Workplace Transformation” and gender-sensitive sex-disaggregated data being used in (future) economic policymaking as recommended by the independent Advisory Group on Economic Recovery.
  • An Equalities Impact Assessment of government recovery plans would add, among other things, a more precise accounting for the multiple disadvantages, and risks, faced by women, single parents, people with health conditions or disabilities and from BAME Communities. As the government relaxes the lockdown, a consideration of the impacts on different ethnic groups and a gendered approach would shine a light on the unequal impact of this crisis driven by existing structural inequalities and discrimination in our society.
  • An investment in human capital programmes that support single parents to access training and further education and to find and retain fulfilling work. Newly unemployed people should get the quickest and best support available. However, we cannot forget single parents already facing disadvantages that are multiplying all the time. A ‘Fair Start for Single Parents’ employability programme tailored to meet the unique needs of single parents would be evidence of Scottish Government taking a crosscutting policy approach to child poverty.

Conclusion

Single parent family poverty and the impact of isolation and loneliness has been heightened by the pandemic and lockdown. As we move to easing of the COVID-19 restrictions, transitioning out of the current lockdown arrangements, this will also mean for some single parents a transition into a deeper crisis. The key emerging issues for single parents and children include poverty and low income; digital exclusion; early years and school age education and childcare; stress, isolation and the impact on family wellbeing including mental health.  We must continue to listen and understand the key inequalities and human rights issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and responses to it. This will then inform decision making and action plans.

Children and young people are not the face of this pandemic. But what is becoming clear is that they risk being among its biggest victims. While they have fortunately been largely spared from the direct health effects of COVID-19 – at least to date – the crisis is having an acute effect on their wellbeing. All children, of all ages, are being affected, in particular by the socio-economic impacts and, in some cases, by mitigation measures that inadvertently are doing grave harm. Moreover, the harmful effects of this pandemic will not be distributed equally. They are expected to be most damaging for children in the poorest neighbourhoods, and for those in already disadvantaged or vulnerable situations. This is a universal crisis, and, for some children, the impact will be lifelong. The Scottish Government’s child poverty targets, delivery plan and new Scottish social security system must inform every aspect of Scotland’s approach to renewal.

The majority of single parents are women – the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening fragile gains on gender equality and women’s rights. As Scotland responds to the crisis, disaggregated data is critical to examine the differential impact on women and men towards evidence-based decision-making. We need gender sensitive macroeconomic policies, for inclusive and socially sustainable development and for alternative scenarios to demonstrate the effectiveness of investment in social infrastructure, such as child and elder care, as well as physical infrastructure.

Our future cannot just be a return to the “normal” we were in before the virus. The approach then was of government finance-led and debt-led growth; the undervaluing of the contribution of “key” workers and unpaid carers such as single parents; the dramatic and growing inequality between those in poverty and the wealthy and austerity with damaging cuts to the social security system and local authority funding and increasing child poverty. We now know that austerity does not work and, at the same time as a society we realise that we are all now heavily dependent upon the services that the government supplies.

We will focus on the key impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on single parents and OPFS as an organisation and amend our strategic and operational plans accordingly. We need to know more about parents’ experiences of accessing services (be that childcare, employment support, housing, social security) and how those services might not recognise the reality of their lives or particular barriers they are dealing with. We want to find out how to support single parents in communities to move towards recovery and renewal after the impact of COVID-19 and draw on all the creativity we’ve seen from single parents and their families. The pandemic has caused a great deal of hardship and presented new challenges to single parent families across Scotland. It has also created space for changes and new ways of doing things that we might not have thought of before.

At OPFS we will aim to amplify the voices of families through their stories and narratives which can lead to new ideas, questions and visions of the future as well as practical ways that can help us move toward recovery and renewal. This work will draw explicitly on the feedback from single parents themselves, their experiences during the crisis as well their views on how OPFS can improve the design and delivery of support and our policy priorities.