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A joined-up employment strategy can benefit both low income families and the Exchequer.

Last week’s employment figures show the UK jobs recovery continues apace. But as many families in Britain are aware, having a job is not the same as having a decent salary. Worse, at the bottom end of the labour market, low-paid jobs are not a first step on the ladder – they are where too many people get trapped, unable to earn the money they need to cover basic living costs.

A new Gingerbread report, The long road to recovery, reveals single parents in particular are struggling in low paid, insecure jobs. Two in five working single parents surveyed were in low-paid jobs. This increased to over half of those who were self-employed. Around a quarter of working single parents surveyed had experienced wage or hours cuts, or redundancy. And, too often, the labour market prevents single parents working the hours they want and need – the proportion involuntarily working part-time (rather than full-time) has doubled, with one in six single parents now under-employed.

The net result for incomes is stark. Our research shows that the majority (67%) of working single parents are now struggling to make ends meet. Indeed, JRF recently found a typical single parent must now earn more than twice as much as they did in 2008 to meet basic living standards.

Recent political recognition of the persistent problem of low pay has generally focused on policy levers such as the minimum wage or Living Wage. But we also need to address the types of jobs available and the progression they offer. Flexible working and secure jobs are critical to ensuring those with caring responsibilities can work and earn reliable incomes for their families. Policy-makers must work more closely with employers across sectors to identify how best to deliver and embed these changes.

We also need to consider how employment support can better encourage people into sustainable work. The government made a step in the right direction in focusing Work Programme performance on sustained job outcomes, but there is an inconsistency between this approach and wider Jobcentre Plus support which focuses solely on benefit off-flows. More training beyond basic levels would also encourage movement into stable employment, rather than insecure and temporary jobs which often result in simply cycling in and out of work.

Of course, working single parents’ fragile finances have not arisen in isolation of welfare reform. The majority of employed single parents surveyed were affected by reforms which have cut their incomes, despite being in work. We urgently need a closer look at how in-work benefits can better maximise work incentives. The gradual roll-out of universal credit provides an ideal opportunity to pilot ways in which those on low incomes can keep more of their earnings. We’d also like to see the welcome announcement of support for 85% of childcare costs under Universal Credit brought forward to benefit working families on tax credits, who need this extra help now.

National data suggests the employment disadvantage facing single parents is not one of motivation, but opportunity. Around only one in ten single parents is actually unemployed – the rest are either in work or economically inactive (usually caring for young children). The British Social Attitudes survey shows over 80 per cent of single parents out of work want to be in a job or training. And when getting just 5 per cent more single parents into work could save the government £436 million, recognising and tackling the barriers to single parent employment should be an economic imperative.

As we approach the 2015 general election with a recovering economy, now is an opportune moment to develop a genuinely joined-up strategy to improve employment opportunity – one that considers all aspects of work for those on low incomes, including the low wage economy, childcare costs, skills, and employment support. For low income families, this would be a meaningful step towards not just improving incomes, but also ensuring they can better support themselves, and play a bigger role in the UK’s continued recovery.

Sumi Rabindrakumar is Research Officer at Gingerbread. She tweets at @GingerbreadPA.