By Alicia Arce
Producer, Born Survivors: Growing Up Skint
In the biggest welfare overhaul for 30 years, the government announced plans to move a whole raft of single parents off benefits and into work. But what does that mean in practice?
When single mum Carol Jackson tried to find a job recently, she found that working would leave her worse off than staying on benefits.
Carol Jackson is a 37-year-old mum of five children living on benefits in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. She has not worked for 19 years since her first child, Kelly, was born.
Two of her children have flown the nest, but she still looks after 14-year-old Matthew, four-year-old Hayley and two-year-old Jack.
Three months ago, Carol found herself homeless after a violent confrontation with the father of Hayley and Jack.
"My partner smashed a glass over my head. Hayley witnessed everything, 'cause she got up 'cause he was shouting. She always mentions it: 'My daddy smashed a glass over your head'".
Carol was left to survive on benefits. She receives £219.63, made up of £59.15 income support and £160.48 in child tax credits. It leaves her and her children living below the official poverty line, which for a household with one adult and three children of those ages is £265.
Earning her keep
Even without the constant added expenses like school uniforms and school trips to fund, it is hard to get by.
"There have been days when I just wanted to give up, wondering where your next penny's coming from, wondering if you run out of something, how you're going to get the food really that we need to get through, the bare essentials that we need to get through."
Carol knows that if she stays on benefits, she and her family will never escape the poverty cycle and the only way out is to get into a job.
She wants to start earning her keep and working for all the little extras she wants to give her family.
Carol's children - Jack and Hayley - live below the poverty line
"I don't want to be struggling on my own, I don't want to be on benefits, that's not a life for anybody," she said.
Carol, like many single mums, has little work experience and no training. But her friend Donna came up with a job for them both: temporary work at the local razorblade company.
It was low-paid but convenient, both in location and hours. Most importantly, with Christmas looming, Carol needs some extra money to be able to afford decent presents for her children.
But it is not as simple as that. She also has to think carefully about what it will mean for her children.
Although 14-year-old Matthew can fend for himself, Hayley and Jack need childcare.
Carol is, rightly, proud of her role as a mother and takes her responsibilities very seriously. She does not like the idea of a stranger looking after her children.
"If you bring a child into the world, you should be prepared to look after that child. I've known mums who have worked and they don't spend any time with their children.
"I know everything about my kids and that makes you proud as a mum."
With concerns about how the job would affect her children, Carol also wanted to find out about the financial implications, so she headed down to the Citizens' Advice Bureau. The news was not good.
At the razorblade factory, they were offering 27 hours' work a week on the minimum wage of £5.52 an hour. This meant Carol's weekly wage would be £149.04.
A poorer outlook
She would lose her income support, but would be eligible for working tax credits of £65.66 a week to supplement her low wage.
But the costs she would incur from going back to work would be much greater. She would then have to pay her rent at £50 a week and her council tax, an extra £22.95.
She would need to pay for school dinners, dental costs and several other expenses. The sums do not add up.
Suddenly a job that was going to help her through Christmas does not seem so attractive after all.
After the consultation, Carol felt deflated.
"I was really buzzing coming here today because I thought, 'Now is the time for me to go back to work and earn my own money,' and I've just been knocked back," she said.
"I feel like I've got a kick in the teeth. I feel really deflated, low, and that's all I can say at the minute."
Carol decided not to take the job at the razorblade factory. It would have left her poorer than she is currently on benefits and she feels her children would also suffer. But she is not looking forward to Christmas.
Born Survivors: Growing Up Skint will be broadcast at 9pm on Wednesday, 19 December on BBC Three.