Among the many flaws of Universal Credit, one of its lesser publicised quirks is that it removes an exemption for single parents under 25 years which had enabled them to be paid the adult rate of benefits, in recognition of the costs of caring for a child alone.

As a result, when a young single parent has to move to Universal Credit — for example when their child turns five and they can no longer claim Income Support — they are up to £66 worse off per
month. This is a drop of around 20% in financial support — typically with no warning from the DWP that they’ll be receiving less.

This is what we are calling the ‘young parent penalty’, because there is no justification for making this cut to support. It is an arbitrary decision to treat young parents and their children as less
worthy of adequate social security than those over 25 years old. This flies in the face of the evidence which shows that children in single parent families are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty, while children born to women under 20 are at a 63% higher risk of poverty.

This is a reserved, UK-wide policy, but as a new Scottish Parliament begins it is important to reflect on how all of us can challenge the unfair misconceptions and inequalities faced by young parents in Scotland. Policies like this do not exist in a vacuum, and the impacts on children and families are far too stark to simply sidestep as something we — and our Scottish Parliament — can do nothing about.

There are around 17,000 single parents under 25 in Scotland. This is about a third of all young parents, and just over 10% of all single parents. As a small and commonly stigmatised population, it is perhaps unsurprising (albeit wrong) that their voices and experiences often go unheard. But it is shame on us all that our society continues to fail to break down the barriers that they and their children so often face. 

It is not only in social security that young parents come up against inequality. The fact that women in education, including apprenticeships, do not have the same maternity rights as those in employment makes it harder for young mums to escape the poverty they are trapped in and to reach their potential.

We also know care-experienced young women are significantly more likely to become young mums. Improving the support they receive as parents is vital to preventing generational care. Ending generational poverty is an integral piece of that puzzle, as recognised by The Promise in its plan for 2021-24.

There is also evidence that mothers aged 16-24 are much more likely to experience poor mental health. This is a group of young people who are likely to require more, not less, support, and making sure that happens should be a top priority for newly elected (and re-elected) MSPs.

Earlier this year, IPPR Scotland recommended that the Scottish Government consult on introducing a lone parent premium to the Scottish Child Payment.

Measures like this, or a premium targeted at young parents, could help mitigate some of the inequality faced by those who are penalised by the UK social security system.

The ‘young parent penalty’ is just one symptom of a system which overlooks the needs of young parents, especially young single parents. Too often, they are written off and looked down upon. But we know from experience that, with the right support, young parents can raise and love their children just as well as any other parent.

To gain momentum for change in addressing inequality in policy, we need to start by changing the conversation and giving young parents the respect they deserve. That’s something every one of us has the power to do.