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Sharing perspectives on lone parents’ employment and child well being in Scotland

Dr Francesca Fiori

This summer we held a discussion on the issues of lone-parent working and how this relates to child wellbeing. It was based on the recent briefing paper presenting research evidence on the same topic:

Living with a lone mother in Scotland. Do children fare better if their mothers are in work?

We were delighted to be joined by participants from the Scottish Government and organisations Close the Gap, Fife Gingerbread, One Parent Families Scotland, Parenting Across Scotland, Poverty Alliance, Save the Children and ScotScen Social Research.

Changing expectations on lone parent working

The policy landscape in Scotland and across the UK has changed a lot in the last 20 years – moving away from the assumption that lone parents should stay at home to the opposite expectation, i.e. that lone parents must work. As work has become a necessary requisite to receive most welfare support, employment rates of lone parents have increased.

According to the most recent Scottish census in 2011, up to 60% of lone parents were in employment. They were also working more hours than before, compared to the previous census records.

Impact on child wellbeing

Using data from Growing Up in Scotland, Francesca’s research evidence suggests that maternal employment has a positive effect on the wellbeing of children living with a lone mother in Scotland. Higher household income, greater maternal wellbeing and attendance of early childhood education centres are some of the key mechanisms through which maternal employment has a positive impact on children.

However, not all types of employment have the same beneficial effect. Levels of wellbeing are particularly high if mothers are employed in higher status occupations – such as professional and managerial occupations, and even intermediate clerical occupations – and if they work fulltime.  A large proportion of mothers, however, work in lower-status occupations and for shorter hours. Although their children do better than children of non-working mothers, these forms of employment are not equally beneficial for their wellbeing as higher-status jobs.

In-work poverty and a tailored approach to employability programmes

Not all types of employment have the same beneficial effect on the well-being of children living with a lone mother. Although the majority of lone parents are in employment, many of them work in precarious and low-pay positions. This is partly because some lone-parents lack adequate qualifications and training to work in higher-status and well-paid jobs. Often, however, it is because of the greater difficulties they face in combining their care responsibilities with longer working hours. As a consequence, many lone-parent families live in poverty or are at risk of economic hardship.

Speakers agreed on the importance of employability programs to help individuals to become and remain employed, and to make careers progression. However, they also argued that, in order to support lone parents’ employment, services should be tailored more explicitly around their characteristics and the challenges they face in their everyday lives. Moreover, employability programmes alone are not sufficient if employers do not offer flexible working arrangements, and if parents do not have access to affordable child and social care services.

Employability, in-work poverty and work-life balance are high on the Scottish Government agenda, but future efforts should tackle these priority areas with an integrated approach that truly supports lone parents’ transitions into well-paid and sustainable employment.

Gender inequality

Gender inequalities shape many of the issues faced by lone parents. The majority of lone parents are indeed women, and women are disproportionately concentrated in lower-paid and lower-status jobs. This has very little to do with their skills or their potential. Rather it is a consequence of structural barriers to female employment. In particular, little opportunities for flexible/part-time working arrangements in secure and well-paid occupations and inadequate and unaffordable childcare provisions are some of the obstacles encountered by all women, but even more so by lone mothers.

Investment in childcare

Finding suitable childcare is a primary concern for all parents returning to work. It is even more crucial for lone parents who often cannot share their care responsibilities with a partner. Limited availability of affordable and flexible services undermines lone parents’ employability, and investment in this sector should therefore be a priority of any policy requiring them to work. Some positive examples already exist in Scotland (see, for instance, Flexible Childcare Service Scotland), but greater investments are needed to make similar options available (and affordable) for lone parents across the country.  Not only does childcare allows more parents to work, but it also offers a nurturing and stimulating environment for children when their parents are at work, with benefits for their emotional and cognitive development.

The Scottish Government commitment to increase funded early learning and childcare to 30 hours per week is a welcome improvement – but it is still far from the universal childcare coverage from early in a child’s life.

Building back better

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted enormous disparities across social groups. Women, lone parents, children and those on lower incomes were among those most severely hit by this crisis and will continue to bear its long-term economic, social and health consequences. At the same time, however, the crisis has given visibility to ‘key’ workers in poorly paid sectors such as health and social care, or retail and hospitality. Participants at the event commented that this offers an opportunity to reflect on the societal importance of certain occupations, and a stimulus to build back a better society in which this essential work – that is predominantly done by women – is recognised, valued and fairly paid.

Future directions

The online event brought together a strong network of third sector organisations and government representatives, whose work has at heart the key societal issues of child poverty, lone-parent families and women’s employment. All participants welcomed the research evidence arising from the Understanding Inequalities project and wish more findings will continue to be shared in the future. A more accurate account of the research on lone mothers’ employment and child wellbeing is due to be published soon on an academic journal, and a link will be made available on this website. In the meantime, we should continue to work together to support, shape and influence future policies and activities that aim to improve the lives of children in Scotland.

About Francesca Fiori

Francesca Fiori is a social demographer with an interest in gender and social inequalities and the way these shape the life course of individuals and their families. She worked as a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh within the Understanding Inequalities Project, investigating the life course implications of inequalities in childhood. She is now Associate Lecturer in Geography at the University of St Andrews, where she teaches Quantitative Methods and Population Change.