High cost of childcare in UK makes low-income parents resort to food banks

By Alexandra Topping
Wesley Hall community centre food bank in Leicester.
Wesley Hall community centre food bank in Leicester. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

Low-income parents and those on universal credit are resorting to using food banks as a result of the high costs of childcare, according to a landmark UK survey shared with the Guardian.

As MPs debated the cost and availability of childcare in parliament on Monday, and echoed parents’ call for an independent review, more evidence emerged that such families are struggling to cope with childcare fees.

Of those polled, 16% of parents with a household income of under £20,000 said they had used food banks as a result of childcare costs, with 1% of respondents who made more than that figure also having to rely on charity.

Households that made less than £20,000 were also more likely to have accumulated debts as a result of childcare costs (41% v 22% of those with a higher income). They also had to cut back on necessary items such as heating, essential food or clothing and housing costs (34% v 11%).

Iona Hanrahan, a 38-year-old single mother from Newark, Nottinghamshire, got into debt after the birth of her second child. The self-employed solicitor was on universal credit as she received no financial support for her four-year-old and two-year-old. Both have been in childcare since they were six months old.

“With being self employed and having a fluctuating income I had to close my claim because I was having to pay my childcare upfront with no guarantee of receiving anything back from UC,” she said.

“I did my best to work myself out of having to claim benefits – something I had done very reluctantly but once you’re in the system you either have to accept that as your lot or it’s a massive struggle to get out. I was penalised for working hard, and not given the step-up I needed to get my life back on track and I put that mostly down to the broken promises of contributions to childcare costs that never happened.”

Experts have pointed to the survey as further evidence that the government’s planned £20-a-week cut to universal credit will push more families, and particularly women, further into poverty and away from the workforce.

“The spiralling cost of childcare is hitting the poorest women hardest,” said Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the Women’s Budget Group. “Too many women with more than one child find that childcare costs more than they earn. These women, and their children, are already being pushed into poverty by the cost of childcare. The £20 cut to universal credit will only make things worse.”

The survey asked more than 20,000 working parents and was distributed by more than a dozen organisations. It also revealed those on the lowest incomes were also more likely to say they had taken work below their level of qualification or experience (34% v 19% of those with a household income over £20k) and say that childcare costs were the biggest factor in a decision to change working commitments (57% v 42%).

Single parents were also among those hit hardest by costs – 40% said they had used credit cards or credit arrangements to pay for essential items, 38% said they had accumulated debts, while 25% said they had cut back on essential items.

“Without suitable and affordable provision, single parents are locked out of the workforce or trapped in low paid roles and experience the disadvantage this brings,” said Victoria Benson, Gingerbread chief executive.

“Affordable, quality childcare is essential for all parents but even more important for parents who are going it alone. Six out of 10 single parents in this survey tell us they find childcare completely unaffordable. We need to see better support given to single parents to access and pay for childcare. Without it we will see a two-tier society, with single parents firmly at the bottom.”

Speaking during the Commons debate on the affordability of childcare on Monday afternoon, Labour MP Catherine McKinnell called on the government to begin an independent review, granting a clear vision to support the underpaid and undervalued workforce in early years education.

She said: “Parents shouldn’t have to be left having to choose between their child and their career due to lack of affordable childcare, and women shouldn’t be forced to retreat back into the home because the sums just don’t add up.”

The survey, which revealed that the vast majority of parents think childcare in the UK is too expensive and the government is not doing enough to help, was produced and distributed by Mumsnet, Pregnant Then Screwed, the TUC, the Fawcett Society, the Women’s Budget Group, Gingerbread, Working Families, the Fatherhood Institute and Maternity Action, Music Football Fatherhood, Mother Pukka, Tova Leigh, Black Mums Upfront, the Young Women’s Trust, and Cathy Reay (That Single Mum). The data, which was not weighted, was collected from 20,046 parents in the UK with at least one child aged 18 or under, carried out between 20 July and 31 August 2021 – 97% of respondents were women.


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