Lone mothers, work and welfare: earning and caring in low-income families
How do lone mothers manage to combine paid work with looking after their children? If they work part-time, can they earn enough to make working worthwhile? If they work full-time, what happens to family life? How do children experience their mothers' employment and what impact does this have upon everyday lives?
These are some of the key questions that have been explored in the Family Work Project. This research involved talking directly to working lone mothers and their children about how they cope. The families were interviewed first in 2004, again in 2005, and finally in 2007. The interviews included the children as well as their mothers. It is rare to hear from children directly in this type of research, but when a mother gets a job this affects the whole family and means changes for the children as well as for the mothers.
The study found that managing jobs and family life was a real challenge. The children helped their mothers as much as possible. Tax credits were essential to family incomes but could also be a source of anxiety and even debts, if payments were delayed or reduced. It was hard for the families to achieve an adequate and secure standard of living in work, even after several years. These lone mothers were very committed to working, but it was clear that they need more help to get secure incomes if work is to actually improve the families’ well-being and quality of life.
The research has been presented to policy-makers in the Department for Work and Pensions, HR Treasury, HR Revenue and Customs, the Child Poverty Unit and the Cabinet Office, and has informed policy development. It has also helped groups such as Gingerbread and Child Poverty Action to monitor how government policy affects incomes and well-being for working families. The research has also attracted interest from academics and policy-makers in other countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
The project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for rounds one and two (RES-000-23-1079) and by the Department for Work and Pensions for round three.
There were two main aims:
- To examine the impact of paid work - and for some job loss - on family life and living standards for lone mothers and their children over time.
- To explore how lone mothers and their children negotiated the everyday challenges of sustaining low-income employment over time.
There were three rounds of in-depth interviews, starting with 50 families at the first round, 44 at the second and 34 at the third.