Welfare reforms improve quality of life for single mothers and their children

Single mothers are more likely to be employed, to enjoy greater financial security and to have improved mental health, thanks to a decade of government reforms, according to new research from the Universities of Bath and Bristol.

The research also indicates that their children (aged 11-15) are happier, have greater self-esteem and enjoy better relationships with their mothers. It also shows large and significant declines in truanting, smoking and in the intention to leave school at the age of 16 among the same age group.

The research was led by Professor Paul Gregg at the University of Bristol's Centre for Market & Public Organisation in collaboration with Dr Susan Harkness, Senior Lecturer in Social & Policy Sciences at Bath.

The study, which looks at the impact of government support for families with children from 1999 to 2009, is published in the current issue of Research in Public Policy.

Reforms introduced in 1999, notably The Working Families Tax Credit and The New Deal for Lone Parents, sought to improve work incentives for single parents and previous research has shown that these reforms were effective in raising employment among single parents by four to five percentage points over five years, equivalent to an additional 65-80,000 single parents in work.

This research looks at other benefits and finds that the reforms eased the transition into single parenthood when a relationship broke up. It shows a significant increase in the proportion of women staying in employment after becoming single and improvements in their financial circumstances and mental health.

Single parents have long been identified as a group with relatively poor mental health compared with mothers in relationships but the data show a significant improvement in mental health among single parents after the reforms when compared with both single women with no children and mothers in relationships. Further analysis reveals that most of the negative impact of being a single parent – and the subsequent improvement after the reforms – is concentrated around the point of break-up.

There is also evidence of improved levels of mental health in the year prior to separation. This could be explained either by an improvement in employment and financial circumstances among those who go on to become single parents, or by people leaving relationships at a less unhappy (earlier) point.

The positive effects on their children show that the effects are typically far greater for boys than for girls. Two other factors are important to young people's esteem: maternal employment and depression. To the extent that policy reforms have raised maternal employment, young people’s outcomes will have improved.

Speaking about the findings, Professor Gregg said: "The magnitude of the changes arising from the reforms is significant. Half of the gap in self-esteem and unhappiness scores and in truanting, smoking and planning to leave school at age 16 are eliminated among 11-15-year-olds after the policy reforms.

"This strongly suggests that the increases in incomes and employment associated with the reforms have profoundly changed the quality of life of children in single-parent families."

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