Coping and Hoping: Interviews with low-income lone mothers

Posted in: Business and the labour market, Welfare and social security

Professors Jane Millar and Tess Ridge are Professors of Social Policy at the University of Bath. This blog draws on  work that they did for Work and relationships over time in lone-mother families, a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report.

Over these long summer holidays, many working parents will be making complicated arrangements for the care of their children. School holidays are certainly a challenge for working lone mothers, but then so is work in general when you are just one person trying to do everything. There are about 1.9 million lone parents in the UK, with about 3 million children[1]. Twenty years ago, about 44 per cent of lone mothers were employed; today 68 per cent are employed[2]. This shift of lone mothers into paid work has been driven by a combination of economic factors (more jobs available for women, often part-time), demographic change (more lone mothers who are older, better educated and with previous work experience) and a mix of various policy measures (especially improved financial incentives, but also more stringent work obligations).

Being in work has undoubtedly made many lone mothers and their families much better off financially, especially when in-work benefits such as tax credits are added to wages. But working poverty remains an issue for many, with about 600,000 children in poverty in working lone-parent families[3]. What is more, we know very little about the long-term experience of working for lone mothers, and whether being in work provides security and stability over time. Policy remains firmly wedded to the idea that ‘work is best’ and that everyone of working age should be working. Universal Credit, the flagship policy of the Department for Work and Pensions, is all about getting people into work and ensuring they stay there – so it’s important to understand what this really means in practice, and whether there are still barriers or constraints in the way of achieving the good life through work.

To explore these issues we need information about family and working life over time – and preferably over a period of several years, not just the initial few weeks or months in work. Our in-depth research has been gathering just that. We started with an initial sample made up of 50 lone mothers who left Income Support for paid work in 2001/2002; the women were all receiving Working Families Tax Credit, which meant that they were on relatively low wages and/or working part-time. We interviewed the mothers and their children three times between 2004 and 2007, and in 2016 we returned to 15 of the families to look at their longer-term experiences. The main report from the 2016 interviews, has just been published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

So what has working life meant over that time period? For most of the women in our study working was a key part of their lives, and they stuck to work even in some difficult circumstances. But this did not necessarily mean that income increased or life got easier, as we saw in many of our case study stories. Bella, when we first met her in 2004, had three children (aged 9, 15 and 17) at home, and she was working two part-time jobs, one in a college providing student support and one as a cleaner. She needed the cleaning job to make up the 16 hours to qualify for tax credits. This was a juggling act, she told us: “and the thing is, as long as everything goes according to plan it does work, but of course life doesn’t go according to plan so it doesn’t take very much really to throw it”. Bella was always trying to increase her income, but was unable to do this by working just one job. Part-time cleaning and caring jobs came and went over the years: “I was looking after an old lady as well, but I dropped that job in September because I cannot work till midnight and then teach the next day”. So by 2007, she had three separate part-time contracts at the college. “I was sick of saying no to the kids... ‘No, you can’t have’; ‘no, you can’t do’; ‘no, we can’t go.’ And it was the only way that I could get some more money.”

When we talked to Bella in 2016, she was 57 years old, and her children had all left home. Still trying to increase her income, she had studied part-time and been promoted to course leader – finally she had one full-time job. One frequent theme of our conversations with Bella over the years, however, had been her poor health: “I think what contributes to me being ill was having so many years of having to cope, basically”. She had had to take time off and reduce her working hours: “I was on four-and-a-half days and that was the most money I’d ever earned in my life… And it was fabulous and I thought, oh, finally, I’ve got my degree; I’ve got my job; I’ve got some money. And then it was all snatched away again”. As she looked to the future, she reflected on her circumstances: “Insecure, because I’ve no pension. You know? My health is not brilliant and if I can’t work then I’m going to be very broke and probably quite sad about it. But, you know, all my money went on the kids growing up – I couldn’t afford to pay a pension”.

The challenges faced by Bella were not unusual. Some of the women we talked to did manage to move into much better-paid jobs over time. For example, Charlotte started as a delivery driver and, after several job changes and further training, had become a senior regional manager. But, like Bella, she also had health problems that were now affecting her work, and she did not have much by way of pension: “my world had just come to an end you know all that, all the hard work, everything that I have done... I thought God what am I going to do, who is going to pay my bills because there is only me that pays my bills”. In general, the women’s income was relatively low over the years, even despite further education and training, and they found it hard to achieve any longer-term financial security. This also meant that these lone mothers often found it difficult to help their children while the children were trying to establish themselves as independent young adults. The stories of the young people show how hard it can be to make headway in today’s low-wage labour market – but that is a topic for another blog.

The tenacity and hard work of the women was striking, but so are the challenges and the lack of long-term support. The main policy approach to getting lone parents into work has so far been based on a ‘work-first’ model – get a job, any job, and a better income and better life will follow. Universal Credit somewhat changes the emphasis in that it is intended to also enable in-work progression. But our research suggests that this will not be easy nor cheap, and will require some serious consideration of how to ensure ‘good jobs’ and long-term security in work.

Read the full report Work and relationships over time in lone-mother families





Table 4.5db: Percentage of children in low-income groups by various family and household characteristics, United Kingdom. Below 60% of median after housing costs.


Posted in: Business and the labour market, Welfare and social security


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