Universal Credit (UC) is harmful to the mental health of claimants and has a particularly detrimental impact on the mental health of lone parents, creating stress, anxiety and financial hardship.

“Being on Universal Credit has meant that I was often faced with the decision of whether or not I should use my money to eat or heat the home, which has in turn, caused me a lot of anxiety about whether or not i'll have enough money to last me for the rest of the week (after food and fuel has been paid for).”
lone parent household
“Trying to meet the needs of my family and myself on a very low budget and keep an acceptable quality of life for us all is a huge burden and the stress takes a toll. I lie awake at night working out how I can make healthy meals and still have enough money left for bills, or how I can reduce spending to cover an unexpected cost.”
Lili K
couple parent household

For lone parents, managing the cost-of-living crisis, without a partner with whom to share an ever increasing financial burden and the worries this brings, could be particularly challenging. Pippa and Faith N describe how the cost of living crisis has added additional pressures onto already stretched household budgets:

“As I said I was struggling massively as I was before and now everything has increased so much with little increase to benefits, we will not manage. I am fighting now again for our future on my own, with little support or support which I can use.”
lone parent household
“It’s becoming harder and harder to keep my children sheltered from the cost of living crisis. It’s very difficult being a lone mum at this time.”
Faith N
lone parent household

Against the backdrop of the cost of living crisis, Universal Credit brought additional stress and hardship, often related to the ever-increasing reach of conditionality which was experienced by parents in both couple and lone parent households, described here by Herbie and Joe:

“The idea that UC gets you into work or off benefits into better employed work, is nonsense. Its system of commitments and sanctions simply puts people under pressure to do more, low paid, poorly supported work, so they are financed less by the government.”
lone parent household
“Conditionality is a damaging thing as I didn't report something a while ago for a few days and was told I had breached Universal Credit rules and was explained they could even punish me by charging me £50 for breaching the rules. How is this social security, this is more of a dictator regime, and if you do something wrong we will punish you.”
couple parent household

What is the impact of Universal Credit on people’s mental health?

Economists, Emma Tominey, Mike Brewer and Thang Dang, ask what happens to mental health during a period of vulnerability, when people become unemployed. Using data from the UK Household Longitudinal Survey, a study of nearly 50,000 households observed across 10 years, they look at what happens to people who become unemployed under the former legacy benefit system and what happens to people who become unemployed under the current system of Universal Credit.

The findings are stark. If someone becomes unemployed and is then moved onto Universal Credit, their mental health is worse compared to someone 6 who becomes unemployed and is able to claim the old legacy benefits. 1 But most importantly, the negative mental health effect is largest for lone parents.

Why is Universal Credit particularly harmful for the mental health of lone parents?

The economists, Emma Tominey, Mike Brewer and Thang Dang, suggest two reasons. Unemployed individuals in a couple rely on their partners, who adjust their work patterns – working more hours, for instance – in response to their partner being unemployed whilst on UC. This meant that the lone parents on UC experienced more financial difficulties which led to problems paying bills and reduced expenditure on food compared to those on legacy benefits, as shown below and, this increased mental health problems.

Fighting the system alone Experiences of Universal Credit as a lone parent

Whilst the impact of inadequate payments and increased conditionality associated with Universal Credit affected a range of different households, these pressures were compounded for lone parent households who often had more limited access to resources and support networks. Aurora T and Dotty P both describe the experience of trying to manage these multiple responsibilities whilst living on a low income:

“The cost of living has indeed impacted us all. As a single parent all decisions are a burden to shoulder alone. I continually weigh up every day situations without the support of a partner. All responsibilities are mine. Budgeting, the food shop, the utility bills and childcare. Over the years I’ve become accustomed to this way of life. I am resourceful and resilient and yet I am compromised. We live day to day and week to week. I have no choice but to make life work because the children are reliant on me. Admittedly I can at times bury my head in the sand to prevent overloading. Of course all these problems must be faced, eventually. ”
lone parent household
“So frustrating when you need to be employed but the government screws you over every chance they get. As a single mum with literally no assistance from family or the father I need to stay employed and have my children in day care and school and be able to finance everything from council tax, vehicle tax, electricity, good god I can't carry this weight rent and food, water clothing just everything's getting too much now honestly how do people survive without family and friends in the UK is what I want to know... We moved here for a better life but it’s only gotten worse.”
Dotty P
lone parent household

Erik W and Precious D describe how this sense of responsibility impacts on both their mental health and their self-esteem:

“Not being able to afford the cost of heating and electricity to cook healthy meals has also had a big effect on my mental health, feeling that I am not able to care for my daughter in a way that I should be able to. There are also the appointments that I miss to try to get help as I simply don't have the money to pay for travel as the hospital I would need to get to is not within walking distance. I would not say at the moment that I have any sort of meaningful life largely being at home struggling to keep warm and eating very basic foods.”
lone parent household
“As a single parent I am the only provider in the house: there are a lot of daily responsibilities to attend and they cause already plenty of stress. – Precious D, lone parent household”
Precious D
lone parent household

Participants described how Universal Credit failed to recognise and respond to the needs of lone parents. Entering new relationships could be complicated and challenging, requiring careful navigation to avoid being forced into a joint claim or losing income, as described by Benny V and Trixie N:

“Now as a single mum I am entitled to UC, but now I am seeing a new partner, it has caused me to be careful how many times I see him, in case it affects my UC, which is not fair as we both should be entitled to not rely on Ur partner’s money. I find life with UC is very strict, I have to rely on it since I have a Young child and feel like it's not in his best interest to send him into nursery full time. I feel that the UC meetings I attended are useless and the budget they give you is unrealistic for the cost of living.”
Benny V
lone parent
“I moved in with my partner in the last year in summer and moved on to universal credit, which was a joint claim. Now he works and he's a teacher so he doesn't get a huge salary but fairly okay wage. And since that move we have been a lot worse off financially and I now only get universal credit, which is probably about three to 400 pound a month less than what I used to get on tax credits. … And basically because he got more money this month, the universal credit was less, so I got less money for my children who were not his children. So then I have had to be out of pocket because he earned more money, which I think is really wrong.”
Trixie N
coupled household

The rigid work expectations and requirements were described as ill-suited to the needs to lone parents, applying pressure to find additional employment were this was impractical and not necessarily available, as reported by Jenny D, or disincentivizing full time work despite an interest in increasing working hours, as described by Edison P:

“When I first claimed universal credit I was sent on a course specific for call centre work. It was compulsory and I was told I was guaranteed an interview at the end. I fully engaged with the week long program but the interview turned out to be with someone on work experience and the jobs didn’t actually exist. I felt like a pawn being manipulated in game. The threat of being sanctioned means adhering to the rules come what may. Fortunately I found work via an agency and then subsequent employment on a part-time basis a month after this awful experience. As I work in a school - and only get paid for 39 weeks per year, I’m terrified for when the new universal credit minimum hours come into force as I will drop below the threshold and will therefore be expected to seek additional work. For context - I’m a single (solo) mum without a support network.”
Jenny D
lone parent household
“I work part time, as a single mother to my 11 year old daughter - it doesn’t make me want to work full time as there is no incentive to. I am ‘better off’ and I use that loosely being in part time work than I am full time.”
Edison P
lone parent household

Increased conditionality applied to lone parents with a complete lack of flexibility or compassion, despite childcare responsibilities and the absence of wider support networks, could create very distressing experiences for parents and, at times, also their children, described here by Bessie J:

“My worst experience was signing on and my daughter who was 6 at the time was very poorly. I had nobody to help with childcare as she was absent from school. I called the job centre to explain the situation but they insisted if I did not sign on and comply with them, I would have my benefit sanctioned. It was hard work, carrying a 6 year old from the bus stop to the job centre. My daughter was running a temperature and drowsy. She cried throughout the time of interview/ signing on. … It's surreal as if having a child didn't matter and it was expected that I had parents to help out, and I had to explain they both passed away. I felt as if I was judged and I was embarrassed to be signing on.”
Bessie J
lone parent household

In the Spring Budget, the government announced changes to childcare support available to people on Universal Credit. Currently, Universal Credit covers up to 85% of childcare costs however parents are required to pay upfront for childcare and claim back the costs, creating impossible financial pressures, particularly so for lone parents, as described by Patricia F and Maisie E:

“I've only really used benefits since becoming a single mum. This was when my baby was 12 weeks old. It's a massive help for me as I'm on a low income wage. It helps top up my monthly salary to help me provide everything I need. I would be lost without the support of UC. I am also really grateful for the childcare element as without that I couldn't work. However the fact you need to initially pay this upfront is awful. Each month I pay over half my salary to have to then wait around 14 days to get it back and between that time it can be hard. I wish they could check in with the nursery so that I'm not waiting that long it really is hard at that time.”
Patricia F
lone parent household
“I am on universal credit. This has previously remained steady. However it has changed for my circumstances to have to pay childcare costs before claiming them back. Also being paid 4 weekly now means I miss a uc payment every April.”
Maisie E
lone parent household

“I do not get time for myself”: Staying well on a low income for lone parents

Finding the time and financial resources to be able to take time out and take part in the types of activities that promote positive mental wellbeing was tough for both lone parent and couple households with children, however with restricted financial resources on UC and limited support networks this was particularly challenging for lone parents. This meant that the parents facing the most significant pressures and worries, had the least access to the resources to help them stay well. Benny explains how this impacts on mental health:

“As a single parent you want to be able to provide for your child and give them the best start in life, but also as a young parent you want to be able to do all the normal nice days out/ going on date nights e.t.c what is important with your mental health. At the moment the cost of bills are taking over and are causing a big worry.”
lone parent household

While particularly acute for lone parents, the impact of financial restrictions on staying well was also documented by parents in coupled households. Lili K wrote about how inadequate financial support from UC can lead to a lack of choice in the types of coping strategies available to parents and carers living on a low income, meaning that those activities that could be most beneficial are often out of reach:

“I used to go to the gym, roller rink and swim several times a week but now I have no money to do any of these things. Instead I try to enjoy free activities such as walking, foraging, pet care, reading, guerrilla gardening, puzzles and brushing up my maths skills in my spare time but usually I make myself do them rather than actually enjoying them. It makes me tearful to think about that.”
Lili K
couple parent household

We are often told that when you feel stressed or worried you should focus on self-care: have a hot bath, go swimming, have some “me time”, go to the gym. The concept of resilience is deployed to capture these ‘positive’ behaviours of independence and self-help. But what if your financial circumstances make it harder, or even impossible, for you to do any of this? A hot bath or a trip to the gym is far too costly when your budget is already stretched to the limit. It can be helpful to have coping strategies for hard times and stressful circumstances but the danger in championing self-care and personal resilience is that when people cannot afford to participate in the activities upheld as forms of self-care they are portrayed as culpable for their circumstances and, like Lili, they feel inadequate and excluded. As we argued in our book, A Year Like No Other, about the experiences of parents and carers living on a low income during the pandemic, we need to ask ourselves if it is appropriate to ask people to be ‘resilient’ in the face of financial hardship and a Universal Credit system that is causing the mental health problems in the first place.

Overlapping stigma: Life as a lone parent and a social security claimant

Lone parents and carers spoke of the overlapping forms of stigma they experienced being both a Universal Credit claimant and a lone parent. Responding to a question about receiving employment support through the Jobcentre, Evelyn D told us:

“I felt that I was a ‘drain on the system’ and that I didn’t deserve the help.”
Evelyn D
lone parent household

Bessie J described how the stigma associated with poverty and with being a lone parent led to a reduction in her support networks, leaving her further marginalised:

“This town is divided by wealth. A culture of ostracising from friendship groups due to the stigma of poverty and being a single parent. It's 2023 and yes there are people who are small minded. I'm hurting and depressed living in an area where I am not welcomed.”
Bessie J
lone parent household

The experiences of Evelyn and Bessie of a stigma brought about by their dual experiences of lone parenting and of poverty resonate with many of the other responses from lone parents in Changing Realities. The quotes from participants evidenced the compound hardship experienced by lone parents as isolation, worry, poverty and exclusion from mainstream society were created or made worse by Universal Credit. The responses from participants pointed towards intersectional inequalities along the lines of race, gender, disability and migration. Our evidence was not sufficient to explore these intersections adequately and we would argue that further research is urgently required to better document how overlapping inequalities affect both mental health and experiences of Universal Credit among low income parents and carers in order to tackle embedded intersectional inequalities.


Parents and carers living on a low-income from across the UK have come together to push for change, collaborating on Changing Realities in the hope that tomorrow can be better than today. Among them are many lone parents on Universal Credit, who often face extreme financial pressures and punitive demands from work coaches, largely, if not entirely, alone. This everyday experience collides with a cost of living crisis, where the struggle to get by has become only harder still. Against this context, those with existing mental health issues can face additional pressures, while others may experience stress, anxiety and new mental health challenges because of the make up of their day-to-day life.

“This past week has been difficult. Our universal credit was drastically cut due to me being paid twice in an assessment period… Trying to find a way to get us through the next three weeks is proving unsuccessful, draining and scary. When will they fix the benefit system so it actually benefits?”
Edison P
lone parent household
Changing Realities is a collaboration between parents and carers, researchers at the University of York, and Child Poverty Action Group.
Changing Realities is funded by abrdn Financial Fairness Trust.
Changing Realities' sister project is Covid Realities, which ran from 2020 to 2022, and was funded by the Nuffield Foundation
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