Family Matters No. 87 - April 2011

Desperately seeking security

UK family policy, lone mothers and paid work
Jane Millar

Abstract

This article draws on longitudinal qualitative research to examine the labour market experiences of lone mothers over a period of four to five years. These lone mothers are very much the "hard-working families" that the British welfare state is being reformed and reshaped to support. The work-as-welfare agenda?making people better off, promoting choice and independence?offers the promise of a better quality of life through engagement in the working world. These women made the commitment to work with exactly those goals in mind?to create better lives for themselves and their families. But, even after four to five years, many were still struggling to achieve an adequate and secure standard of living in work. They found that there were limited opportunities to increase income and that the wages/tax credits package did not always provide financial security. The level of financial support for British working families is falling, with substantial cuts in benefits, tax credits, services and public sector jobs. The nature of that financial support is also likely to change radically. But if benefits for working families are lower, then it is all the more important that the support available is reliable, stable and secure.

One of the most enduring themes in British social policy is the importance of promoting and sustaining high levels of employment. Over the past 10 to 15 years, this goal has been pursued using a range of policy instruments. Welfare-to-work policies have promoted, supported, cajoled and compelled more and more people to seek work, including people with disabilities, long-term health problems and caring responsibilities. Social security and tax measures have provided financial support and incentives to work, supplementing wages for low-paid and/or part-time workers. Family policy has provided child care services and extended parental leave and other employment rights to help parents and carers reconcile work and family responsibilities. As the much-repeated slogan of the Labour years put it, “work is the new form of welfare”.

This article takes a close-up look at the experience of working in Britain from the perspective of the families who are at the receiving end of this rhetoric and these policies. It draws on longitudinal qualitative research to examine the labour market experiences of a sample of lone mothers over the four to five years between 2002–03 to 2007–08. Lone mothers are a particularly interesting group for exploring the work-focused policy agenda. First, they are a key target group for policy; there are about two million lone parents in the UK, of whom nine in ten are women, making up about 26% of families with children (Office for National Statistics [ONS], 2009). About three million children live in lone-parent families. Lone mothers have high poverty rates compared with other families, and they also experience more persistent and long-term poverty. They have low employment rates compared with other mothers, and they move in and out of work more often than other women. Getting more lone mothers into work, and ensuring they stay in work, has therefore been a crucial part of the Labour Government’s promise to end child poverty. Second, lone mothers potentially have a number of difficulties in sustaining employment. They face a gendered labour market in which women are paid less than men and have a narrower range of job opportunities. But they are also less likely than other women to have educational or vocational qualifications and to have work experience (although this has been changing in recent years).

The initial sample for our study consisted of lone mothers who had been receiving income support (i.e., social assistance) but who had started work and claiming tax credits some time between October 2002 and October 2003.1 We first interviewed the families (50 mothers and 61 children) in the first half of 2004. We interviewed the families again (44 women and 53 children) in mid-2005, and for the third and final time (34 mothers and 37 children) in late 2007 (Ridge & Millar, 2008). There was thus typically at least four years between the date of leaving income support and the final interview; for some families, just over five years. These were in-depth interviews, carried out face-to-face, and thus generated very detailed and rich information.

The women all had at least one child aged over eight whom we also interviewed as a key part of the research design.2 It is of course individual people who hold jobs, but the impact of work is felt by the family as a whole, including the children, in respect of both money and time. When a lone mother starts work her life changes in many ways, and so do the lives of her children. The children are active participants in this and we wanted to hear directly from them about how this affected their lives.

The main aims of the study were 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; and to explore how lone mothers and their children negotiated the everyday challenges of sustaining low-income employment over a period of 5 years.

The 1997 Labour Government: Making work possible, making work pay work

What was the political and social environment at the time when these women were about to enter the labour market? The Labour Government that had been elected in 1997 had a strong commitment to welfare reform. The UK had experienced very high levels of poverty and growing inequality in the 1980s and 1990s. Measures to support employment were a high priority. The New Deal for Lone Parents (NDLP) started in 1998 and was one of the first of the employment activation programs. NDLP provided individual information, guidance and support to lone parents who wanted to find jobs. Participation in the NDLP was voluntary for lone parents, and there was no compulsion for them to take up jobs. A number of child-focused initiatives also started in 1998, included Sure Start (locally based services providing health, child care and early years support, initially in disadvantaged areas) and the National Childcare Strategy (aiming to provide quality and affordable child care for all children aged under 14, including free part-time nursery places for all 3- and 4-year-old children).

A national minimum wage was introduced in 1999, alongside reductions in the tax thresholds and in national insurance contributions. The new tax credits also dated from 1999, replacing the existing in-work benefit (family credit) with more generous and extensive support. These were in turn replaced from 2003 by the child tax credit (for families with children) and working tax credit (for people in low-paid work). Working tax credit also includes a child care tax credit, covering part of the costs of registered child care. Tax credits are means-tested on an annual assessment of income, with an end-of-year reconciliation to take account of changes in income and circumstances since the initial award.

Our sample of lone mothers were thus entering (or re-entering) the labour market at a relatively good time in 2002–03. The impact of Labour’s policy measures were starting to take effect, in the context of a favourable economy and buoyant labour market. Between 1997–98 and 2002–03, the employment rate for lone mothers rose from 45% to 53%. The number receiving income support fell from just over a million to about 850,000, while the number receiving in-work family or tax credit support increased from about 350,000 to almost one million. As employment rose, poverty rates (below 60% of median, before housing costs) for lone-parent families fell from 47% to 39% (Department for Work and Pensions [DWP], 2010b). Jobs were available. There was information, individual guidance and support available to get jobs, but no compulsion to take up this help or to seek work. Child care provision was starting to expand and some help was available to meet the costs.

The women we interviewed had all chosen to get jobs and they were all keen to make it work for themselves and their families. They thought they would be better off, financially and in other ways, and some had specific longer term plans—to buy their homes, to save for longer term security, to get better jobs after their children grew up. How did they get on?

Sustaining work: Job stability and income security

At each of the interviews, the majority of the women were in work—43 out of 50, 37 out of 44, and 29 out of 34—so the overall picture is positive in that most did succeed in sustaining employment.3 However, if looking at individual change over time rather than just the cross-sectional picture, it is clear that getting settled into work took some time and for most of the women involved changes in jobs and/or hours, and some periods of unemployment or sickness. There was a lot of movement—in and out of work, changing jobs, changing hours of work—throughout the study. Of the 34 women who were interviewed all three times, 13 had stayed in the same employment since the start (some with changes in hours), 18 had changed jobs (some with periods of unemployment), and three were mainly unemployed.

Those women who had been in work at one or more of the interviews had not been in the “best” (in the sense of being well-paid and secure) part of the labour market. But nor were they in the worst. Many worked in personal services. The jobs included care workers in residential homes and in various child care settings. There were also support workers in schools, housing associations, youth probation and health services. There were nurses, teaching assistants, teachers and lecturers in further or higher education. Some worked in retail, including catering, and in offices. There was also a bus driver, a cleaner and a general worker in a cinema, and self-employment in care work, gardening, crafts and beauty services. Ten women were working in part-time jobs, usually for between 20 and 24 hours per week. Four of these were being paid at or around the national minimum wage level (£5.52 per hour in 2007). Sixteen women were working full-time (30 or more hours) and their average wage of about £390 per week was below the mean of about £463 for all women working full-time (ONS, 2007). Overall, therefore, by the third interview, we were looking at a fairly typical pattern of women’s work, but with slightly lower than average pay for both part-time and full-time workers.

At every interview, almost all the women agreed that being in work was better than being on income support. This was in part because they were financially better off—although for some the gains were marginal—but it was also because in general they valued working. Working was important for self-esteem, for social contacts, as a role model for children, as an opportunity to use skills and experience, and because they thought it provided them with a quality of life that is impossible to achieve on benefits. The children also generally agreed; they thought that it was better for their mothers to be in work, family income improved and they were able to do more things. The older children in particular valued the independence they had, even if it meant they spent more time looking after themselves and their siblings and doing housework.

The social inclusion aspects of work were clear. Work took the families away from the stigma of living on income support—a factor that was important to both the mothers and the children. But sustaining work was often hard going, and this became more apparent the longer the study went on. At the first interview the relief of getting off income support and having some spare money, sometimes for the first time in years, created a positive feel to the interviews. There was much re-decoration, holidays, days out, buying things for the children, going out and socialising. But by the third interview there were many families for whom income and living standards had not changed much and circumstances seemed to have levelled out.

At the final interview, we asked the women whether they felt they were better off than they had been at the previous interview and whether they felt financially secure. The answers were thoughtful as the women weighed up the various aspects, and the responses were mainly positive but often qualified. For many the answer was “yes but”:

I don’t know that the standard of living is any better than when I was on benefits because you pay more for your food.

It’s how you manage your money isn’t it, really? I think back to when I was on income support … I never had much money, if any money, really, and I didn’t have any debt. That was the good thing, but now I have debt.

Debatable. Probably better in work, but I think the added stress, you know, you spend more on clothes, you’re running a car …

Because there were so many factors that the women were taking into account, the relationship between employment stability and feeling better off and being financially secure was complex and not necessarily the same at each interview. But it is possible to divide the women into three broad groups at the third interview. The first group—13 women—were sustaining work, feeling better off and generally financially secure. Six of these women had been in stable employment in the same jobs since the start of the study. So these women had achieved their stability and security relatively quickly. For the other seven this had taken longer, with most having at least one job change along the way. Being able to move from temporary to permanent work was a key factor in promoting a feeling of security. The second group was almost the same size—12 women—but these women did not feel they had improved their financial situations by very much, if at all; nor had they achieved financial security. Six of these women had been in the same employment since the start, so employment stability alone was not enough to make them feel secure. In general, the work patterns were quite mixed in this group, with several women working part-time, shift or variable hours. Finally, the third group—of nine women—were struggling financially. This included the three women who were mainly unemployed and others who had also spent some time out of work, unemployed or sick. There were also two workers who had stable jobs but variable hours and pay.

So, although the overall view at each interview round, among both mothers and children, was that it was better for the mothers to be employed, this was tempered with some ambivalence. After four to five years in work, about two-thirds of the women still in the study felt they were living in constrained and insecure financial circumstances. The question therefore arises—why had more of the women not been able to improve their financial situations?

Strategies for increasing income

Many of the women had very complex income packages—wages, child tax credit, working tax credit, child care tax credit, child benefit, housing benefit, council tax benefit, child support, and possibly loans. Older children sometimes brought their wages or benefits into the household. Some women had partners living with them, again with wages or benefits coming into the household. So, in theory at least, maximising income could be pursued in different ways. In practice, not only was it difficult to achieve an increase in any one source of income, but even if that did happen the interaction between the various sources of income was likely to reduce any overall gain. We can see this by looking at the main sources of income in turn.

Wages

Wages are at the centre of the income package, not only as a major source of income but also as the gateway to eligibility for tax credits and in-work benefits; so we start by looking at how the women tried, or not, to increase their wages. As we have seen, many of the women changed jobs and hours, especially when they first moved into work. Sometimes this was completely outside their control, as temporary jobs ended, or they were made redundant, or because of ill health. Those who changed jobs or hours by choice usually did so for care or family reasons, as they needed hours or location that fitted with their child care arrangements. So it was not so much that the women were seeking jobs with higher wages, but more that they were looking for suitable jobs to fit in with family life. One of the ways in which the women managed to achieve an acceptable work–family fit was by working part-time and, if they could, within school hours. Many of the women could have earned more—per hour and per week—by working longer hours and some did increase their hours over time. However, part-time jobs rarely became full-time jobs and so it was necessary to change jobs to get extra hours, or to take on second or third jobs.

But family circumstances often made it difficult to work longer hours. Many of the women relied upon other family members for informal care and so had to fit with what was available and what they felt they could ask family members to do. Some of the mothers were also providing care themselves—for example for elderly parents—and that became more common as time went on. As far as possible, working time had to mesh with these family arrangements and obligations rather than the other way around. The views of the children were also an important factor in making decisions about work, especially the number of hours worked and the timing of those working hours. As noted above, most of the children did agree that it was better for their mothers to be in work. But the children were of the view—almost unanimously and at every interview—that part-time work was better and that working school hours was best. This was especially the case when the children were younger. It was partly because they wanted to spend time with their mothers, but it was also because of what they saw as the impact on their mothers. One of the girls in the sample who had left home for university by the third interview, said:

I don’t like the fact that her particular work tires her out so much that she’s almost—she’s going to work, she comes home, she has dinner, goes to bed, there’s not really time for enjoyment almost.

Having to work longer hours was something that many of the women resisted, at least while their children were younger. As one woman summed up, “It is hard: work full-time and a full-time family”.

Thus, when they found a manageable fit between family and work, many of the women chose to stay with more or less the same jobs and hours of work, if they could. Seeking to improve their employment situations or their wages required a much longer time frame than just a few years.

Tax credits

Tax credits were thus topping up wages so that working was financially possible, which is exactly the role that they are intended to fulfil. The women all agreed as to the importance of tax credits in enabling them to work, acknowledging that without that financial support they could not have managed. Tax credits were particularly valued when the mothers started work, as they left the security of income support for the less certain world of work. As one mother put it, “It was very helpful to have benefits at the beginning when you were totally out on your own”.

However, almost all of the women had experienced some difficulties with the receipt of tax credits. Some of these were caused by administrative errors and failures, including delayed or incorrect payments, and duplicate payments that then had to be repaid. But many of the problems were inherent in the design of the tax credit system, which is based on an annual assessment with a provisional award, which is then adjusted at year end. This created considerable uncertainty about entitlements and about what changes in family, employment or child care circumstances should be notified, and when. This uncertainty was compounded by a lack of any detailed information on how entitlements were calculated. Without a clear statement setting out calculations and entitlements, some of the mothers felt that they were unable to establish from their award notice how their payment had come about or to challenge the amount they were awarded. They also felt cautious about changing hours of work or seeking pay increases, because they could not be sure what impact this would have on their tax credits.

Other benefits

A few families were receiving help with housing costs, through the housing benefit scheme and/or reductions in local council taxes. Many of the same problems of delays, incorrect payments and arrears associated with tax credits also applied to these payments. However, these were usually a minor source of income, so the problems were not so intense—except for those families who were doubly disadvantaged by problems with both tax credits and the housing benefit.

All the families were receiving child benefit (the universal family allowance paid per child), and this was an important, stable source of income.

Child support

Child support from a former partner is another possible way to increase income, especially as child support payments are not taken into account in assessing tax credit entitlements. The addition of a fully disregarded child support payment to the household budget could therefore make a considerable difference to family income. However, throughout the study the level of child support receipt was consistently low and there was general discontent with the Child Support Agency. Several of the women had high levels of child support arrears owing and they felt that there was little prospect of them ever receiving payment. Some women were, in effect, trading off the lack of child support money for more time, and other in-kind support, from the fathers. Even when payments were established, payments could be irregular and unreliable, and would change if the former partner’s circumstances changed (if he lost his job, for example) or had children with a new partner. Except in a very small handful of cases, relying on regular income from child support from a former partner was not a realistic option.

Partners

It is sometimes suggested that the most effective income-enhancing strategy for lone mothers is to get married, or at least to find a new partner and become a two-earner family. Again, fine in theory, but not so easy to make this work in practice. At the third interview, 16 of the 34 women had indeed found a new partner, but just five of these had resident partners. There was some reluctance to develop relationships to the point of living together, because that might mean a loss of control over income and, even more risky, it might generate a claim on the family home. New partnerships might not work out, leaving the women financially worse off than before. This happened to one woman who remarried between the first and second interview, had two babies in quick succession, but by the third interview was alone again, with a larger and younger family and no financial support from either partner. Children were also sometimes cautious about their own relationships with their mothers’ new partners, especially if the partners took on a child care role while mothers were at work.

Family support

Other family members, and sometimes friends, were often an important source of practical help—providing child care, including for school holidays; presents for Christmas and birthdays; general emotional support; and sometimes loans. But family and friends were never regular sources of ongoing financial support. Such a role would sit very uncomfortably in most families today, even though family ties and support remain generally strong.

However, the children, especially as they grew older, did play a role in helping to support family income. This was usually indirect rather than direct. They got their own jobs so that they could earn money for their own needs. And they moderated their financial demands on their mothers by not asking or expecting certain things. One girl, aged 16 at the third interview, stated:

I know that we ain’t got much money like everybody else has got the money. So like when it’s like school trips and everything, I would like give me Mum slip and I said, “If you ain’t got money, it don’t matter because I’m not right bothered about going on school trips anyway”.

Living as others do

The women thus had to manage on their low incomes and this meant that they often needed to manage their spending very carefully. But there was a bit of a tension in this, because being in work also raised expectations and aspirations. It meant that the women felt that they had—or that they should have—a bit more autonomy and choice. They wanted to live and do the same things as other families do. And that might include living a little beyond their means. As one woman said:

There is this great sense of satisfaction when you’re working to say that I did all this myself and to want to be like any other family. So you do spend and you go on the family holidays and you have the car and you do all those things, because you do just want your children to have that same—not luxuries—but the same opportunities as any other child in any other family.

Desperately seeking security

Achieving security in work was thus a significant challenge for these families, with limited opportunities to substantially improve their financial situations through work. The wages/tax credit dynamic was central to this. Not only were these the two largest sources of income but they were very closely tied together, and in general the women were aware of this. As one mother in steady employment said:

What I get in one hand I get took off in the other, so at end of day, it don’t really make any difference at all. Because what if they put my wages up, which I had the opportunity to do, and then family tax credit will take it off because I’m only allowed to earn so much anyway. So at the moment, while my son is at the age he is, it doesn’t really make any difference to me whether I get a pay rise or not. We do get pay rises every year but it doesn’t make any difference to me really. I mean, I’m in that bracket where it doesn’t make much difference. I’m only allowed to bring so much into house anyway.

Her language here is striking. She says twice that she is only “allowed” a certain level of income, which indicates something about the feelings of powerlessness that being part of this sort of system can engender.

This poverty trap—where wages rise and tax credits go down—was undoubtedly real to many of the women and it did influence how they thought about employment and the choices that they made. But it was not the whole story. What the women did was also influenced by their own aspirations, by the possibilities and opportunities available in the labour market, and by the timing and nature of family change.

As discussed above, the women were not necessarily seeking any immediate changes in their employment. Once they had found something that worked for them and their families they tended to want to stay with it. But, over time, there were two main types of employment advancement that were important to the women. One was about moving from temporary to permanent employment. A number of the women started in temporary jobs, in some cases being employed by an agency, which would supply workers to various employment locations. Agency work in particular often involves long and erratic hours, and is prone to unemployment or slack periods when there is less work available. This could sometimes help when the women needed flexibility for family reasons, but the women in this sort of work were usually keen to move on to something more permanent. The other form of advancement was aimed at getting better jobs, and this was usually a longer term aspiration that involved studying or training alongside part-time work. In both of these employment trajectories earnings could be variable and irregular and tax credits were essential to supplement wages.

Moreover, while the women were trying to pursue these employment goals, their family circumstances were also inevitably changing over time. In particular, their children were getting older. For those with young families, this could sometimes help them with their employment, by reducing child care needs, for example. But for those with older families, it could mean the end of their status as “lone-parent family”, when all their children reached the age of 16 (or 19 if in full-time education) or if the children left home, for example to live with their fathers.

One of the original aims of the tax credit system was to help smooth incomes through employment and family change. But in practice the women had to make their way through quite a complex landscape in order to financially manage these employment and family changes. For example, one mother who worked in an educational setting doing three different jobs had a five-year plan to gradually increase her hours in the job she favoured most and reduce her hours in the other two jobs. This would see her past the period when her tax credits for her children would stop, and ease her into stable employment doing work that she wanted to do: “I need to be on a wage I can live on; not just exist on”. Her plans were working out and she was feeling secure and quite confident at the third interview.

In another family, tax credits ended when the son finished an apprenticeship and started work. This meant the mother had to increase her hours to try and make up the income:

They dropped my tax credits so I had to start working fifty-five hours a week and I’ve done that for a year and a half. Fifty-five hours a week, nights as well, just to make the money up to what I was getting before. Obviously I was getting it and then they didn’t let me know it was stopping and the bills still had to be paid so I was more or less … I have barely seen daylight for a year now because I’ve been in bed or at work at night.

This woman had been feeling fairly secure at the second interview, because she had managed to get more stable employment, but she felt that she had lost that security at the third interview.

This was also true for another woman who had been in a different job at each interview, as she tried to find stable employment. But by the third interview, her tax credits had ended because her children were too old. We asked how important they had been:

Extremely important, because … I’ve been able to, you know, keep a good roof over the girls’ head and it’s been a security to me. Well, it’s security I don’t have now … And now, when I’m in the situation where I no longer get that help, it is very, very hard … It doesn’t actually get easier as you get older and the girls move away, because that security just totally leaves you.

She almost felt she wanted to give up work, “but if I walked away, then it would have been all for nothing”.

The financial support provided by tax credits was absolutely essential in enabling the women to enter and stay in work. It would not have been possible to live on their wages alone. But these families found that there were limited opportunities to increase their income and that the wages/tax credits package did not always provide financial security. Financial security is very important not just for budgeting but also for quality of life. Indeed, the key to feeling better off in work is not just income level but also income security. This could be very hard to achieve in practice.

All parents have to struggle

Does all this matter? It could be argued that what we have been describing is no more than the reality for many working people, and these women were receiving a lot of state financial support, especially through the tax credit system. One of the women in the study made more or less this point herself. She had stayed in work continuously, taking on more responsibilities but without any significant increase in pay. She received tax credits throughout and that included the child care payment. She currently had no large debts but nor had she had any holiday since we first met her, and she had no savings. At each interview she said she was just managing financially and that she was only marginally better off than on income support. But she did feel financially secure. At the third interview, she said:

I just plod along anywhere. I just go at my own pace … Financially I struggle every month, so I just get used to doing that. But I suppose all parents do, no matter whether you are a single parent or whether there is two of you.

As she says, “all parents” have to get used to getting by. And in the current climate of economic crisis, rising unemployment and public sector spending cuts, this type of argument must have some force. David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister elected in 2010, has repeatedly said that “we are all in this together” and that everyone will have to be affected by economic austerity and reduced public services. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to be concerned about the circumstances of poor working families such as these.

These lone mothers and their children are very much representative of the “hard-working families” for whom the British welfare state is being reformed and reshaped to support. The work-as-welfare agenda—making people better off, promoting choice and independence—offers the promise of a better quality of life through engagement in the working world. These women made the commitment to work with exactly those goals in mind—to create better lives for themselves and their families. They are doing everything that is expected of them in this policy environment. But, as we have seen, even after four to five years, many were still struggling to achieve an adequate and secure standard of living in work. This took a toll on both the women and the children.

This was apparent in relation to debt and health problems, both of which worsened over time. Serious debt was a real danger for some of these families, and over half of the women had problematic debts at the third interview, including three women with debts so high that they had declared themselves bankrupt or had taken out Individual Voluntary Agreements (legally binding debt deferment). Their health also declined. At the first interview, 12 out of 50 women reported health problems. At the third interview, it was 19 women out of 34, including 13 women who reported periods of substantial stress and depression. For the children, as we have seen, in general the positive aspects of work tended to outweigh the negative aspects. But the reverse was true in families where work was irregular, and especially where there were further periods of unemployment. Those children did not feel that the mother’s attempts to stay in work had improved their situations. Being a child in a poor working family was in some ways worse than being a child in a poor non-working family, because at least in the latter they spent time with their mothers.

“All families” may indeed have to struggle at times to sustain work and family life. And it is not unreasonable or unfair to expect people and families to have to make the best of what they have. As a society we value work as a route to independence. As individuals we seek to balance aspirations for work with family life and caring responsibilities. The record of the UK Labour Government in seeking to promote work and tackle child poverty shows that policy measures need to be substantial and sustained in order to have an impact. Labour’s policies were most effective in their first five or so years, but this effort was not sustained over time (Joyce, Muriel, Phillips, & Sibieta, 2010; Waldfogel, 2010).

The UK’s Coalition Government, elected in 2010, started by announcing significant cuts in the social security budget, including many measures that will directly affect working families, such as freezing child benefits, limiting tax credits to the poorest families, cutting housing benefits, requiring lone parents to be available for work once their youngest child is aged five, and changing the basis for the uprating of benefit and tax credits.4 The Government estimates that the impact of the 2010 budget on child poverty in 2012–13 is “statistically insignificant” (HM Treasury, 2010). But other analysis suggests that the cuts will fall more heavily on the poorest, including lone parents (Browne, 2010; Trade Union Congress, 2010).

Furthermore, the Coalition Government is now committed to a very radical reform of the social security and tax credits system. This will replace many existing benefits and tax credits with a single universal credit, as broadly set out in the publication 21st Century Welfare (DWP, 2010a). If such reform produces a simpler and more transparent system, then it could make life much easier for many poor working families, especially those people who move in and out of work or have frequent changes of job or hours of work. But the experience with tax credits shows that delivering such a scheme in a way that is actually helpful to claimants is very challenging indeed. There will be nowhere else for families to turn if they are let down by a single system, particularly if this has swept universal child benefits into the mix.

The level of government financial support for British working families is falling, with substantial cuts in benefits, tax credits, services and public sector jobs expected as the government seeks to reduce the financial deficit as quickly as possible. The nature of that financial support is also likely to change radically. But if benefits for working families are lower, then it is all the more important that the support available is reliable, stable and secure. Providing security should be a guiding principle for future policy.

Endnotes

1 The Economic and Social Research Council (RES-000-23-1079) funded the first two rounds of interviews and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) funded the final round. The sample was selected by the Inland Revenue and DWP from their records, and names passed to the researchers after the families had agreed to take part. For practical purposes, we confined the study to southwest England and Yorkshire, including urban and rural areas.

2 Some of the mothers also had preschool-aged children.

3 We lost 16 women from the sample, six at second interview and ten at third interview. There were eleven women who had moved and we could not trace, three who withdrew for health reasons and two who withdrew for other reasons. Although we do not know what happened to these women, it seems unlikely that they had employment patterns that were any more stable than the women we did interview.

4 Benefits are increased annually in line with inflation. From April 2011, the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) will be used for the indexation of all benefits, tax credits and public service pensions. This will reduce expenditure by £5,840 million by 2014–15 (HM Treasury, 2010, Table 2.1).

References

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Professor Jane Millar is Professor of Social Policy, University of Bath. This article is an edited version of Professor Millar’s keynote address presented at the 11th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference, 9 July 2010.

Suggested citation:

Jane Millar, J. (2011). Desperately seeking security: UK family policy, lone mothers and paid workFamily Matters, 87, 27-36.