Lone mothers’ employment and their children’s well-being

All parents want the best for their children. Gladly, for most children this is the case, but some go through more difficult life experiences. Research has shown, for instance, that children who do not live with both parents fare worse on a number of outcomes, including their health and wellbeing. The reasons are manifold, from limited access to economic resources, to exposure to higher levels of family stress and instability.

Not all children living with a lone mother experience the same life circumstances, however, and this might affect their levels of wellbeing. In a recent study, Dr Francesca Fiori from the University of Edinburgh used data from Growing Up in Scotland to investigate the role of maternal employment on the socio-emotional wellbeing of children living with a lone mother in Scotland.

In line with the rest of the UK, Scotland has one of the largest shares in Europe of children growing up in lone parent families: it is estimated that nearly half of all children in Scotland will spend at least some of their childhood with a lone parent. Further, according to the 2011 Scotland Census, over 60 per cent of lone parents were in employment. The proportion increased between 2001 and 2011, as a consequence of UK-wide policies promoting the labour market participation of lone parents. With the current emphasis being on employment as the route out of poverty, it is crucial to understand what its implications are for the wellbeing of children growing up with lone parents.

Francesca’s research showed that, in Scotland, children of working lone mothers are less at risk of having severe socio-emotional problems. However, not all types of employment are the same. The beneficial effects associated with employment are particularly pronounced for children whose mothers work full-time, and for those whose mothers work in intermediate or higher status occupations (such as clerical or professional occupations). Only these children show the same levels of socio-emotional wellbeing as children in two parent families. On the other hand, levels of wellbeing are lower for children whose mothers’ jobs are lower paid and of poorer quality, such as some of the so-called mini-jobs.

These findings point out the inadequacy of simple policy interventions that view parental employment as a goal in itself. If the ultimate aim is to end poverty and increase the material circumstances of children and their families, then lone parents need good quality, stable jobs that pay a decent income, and measures of income support when earnings from employment are not sufficient. In addition to this, lone parents’ transition from welfare to work must be sustained through initiatives aiming to enhance their employability and ability to seek and maintain work.

We have seen some positive actions in this direction that have already been undertaken in Scotland. For example, the Scottish Government commitment to extend funded childcare hours from August 2020 might enable more lone-parents to work, while at the same time offering a nurturing and stimulating environment for their children. The next steps should move towards the provision of more flexible services, following the lead of initiatives such as Flexible Childcare Services Scotland, to suit the diverse and variable needs of lone parents and their families. This could help lone parents to successfully engage with training and education, or other employability programmes, before entering work. Lone parents’ readiness to work depends on their caring responsibilities and on the types of work they are able to access. Moreover, while most lone parents are women, current employability programmes tend to be targeted towards men. Future policies would need to review this. If current political trends in the rest of UK are pointing to the opposite direction, the 2021 election of the Scottish Parliament and its devolved powers provide a unique opportunity. The opportunity to design and implement a policy approach appropriate to a fairer, wealthier and healthier Scotland, which promotes and supports the labour force participation of lone parents, while at the same time addressing its implications for the material and non-material wellbeing of their children.