Monday, 24 September 2012

The only way is up? The employment aspirations of single parents

a research paper published by Gingerbread – the charity for single parents

Introduction: Background

One in four UK families with dependent children is headed by a single parent. They account for just under 2 million families, containing 3 million children1. These families face particular disadvantage, with 41 per cent of children in single parent households living in poverty, compared to 23 per cent of children in couple households2. For at least the past 15 years there has been a strong political consensus that work is one of the best routes out of poverty, and a concomitant drive to increase levelsof single parent employment as part of a broad government strategy to reduce child poverty3.

In this context, over recent years there has been a number of policy initiatives aimed at increasing employment amongst single parents. These have included the New Deal for Lone Parents (NDLP), a voluntary scheme to help improve job readiness and employment opportunities for single parents; additional in-work financial support, specifically through the introduction of working tax credits, and included support for childcare costs; and the introduction of Lone Parent Obligations (LPO), which has applied conditionality for benefit receipt to successive groups of single parents – according to the age of their youngest child – and actively required them to seek work.

From November 2008 most single parents with a youngest child aged 12 or over were no longer eligible for Income Support4. Instead those able to work could claim Jobseeker’s Allowance and were expected to look for suitable work in return for personalised help and support. Further changes have been introduced in three phases: for those with a youngest child aged ten or over from October 2009; for those with a youngest child aged seven or over from October 2010; and for those with a youngest child aged 5 or over from May 2012.

This focus on increasing the level of employment amongst single parents – and in particular the impact of tax credits and the support offered through NDLP5 – has achieved a degree of success: by 2012 59 per cent of all single parents were in work6, an increase of 14 percentage points from the rate in the mid-1990s. It is worth highlighting that the employment rate for single parents does vary depending on the age of their youngest child, and once children are aged 12 or over, single parents’ employment rate is similar to the employment rate for mothers in couples: 71 per cent of single parents whose child is aged 12-15 are in work7, the same as the employment rate for all couple mothers8.

Although the single parent employment rate has increased substantially over the last decade and a half, work is not yet a guaranteed route out of poverty; the poverty rate for single parent families where the parent works part-time is around 1 in 4 (23 per cent), and around 1 in 5 (18 per cent) where the parent works full-time9.

There have long been – and there remain – significant concerns about the quality of part-time work that is available, which is of particular relevance given that the UK has one of the highest levels of part-time working in Europe, and many women with young children work part-time in order to combine work and caring responsibilities. Nearly half (45 per cent) of working women and 13 per cent of working men are currently in part-time employment, and there has been a steady and consistent rise in the proportion of women working part-time, according to the number of children aged under 16 within the household10.

Part-time work is a particularly important source of employment for single parents, with three-quarters of single parents entering work on a part-time basis11. However, a shortage of high quality part-time work across sectors and occupations in the UK means that many women are being crowded into a narrow range of low paid, part-time jobs which do not fully utilise their skills12. Though the availability and take up of flexible working practices is increasing, some forms of flexible working – especially part-time work – are still concentrated in low-paid and low-skilled jobs, where opportunities for progression may be limited. Indeed, research has shown that less than three per cent of part-time vacancies were for roles with salaries starting at £20,000 FTE, compared with the majority of full-time vacancies which pay over £20,00013.

 1 Office for National Statistics (2012) Lone parents with dependent children
2 DWP (2012) Households Below Average Income: An analysis of the income distribution 1994/95 – 2010/11
3 E.g. HMT (2004) Child Poverty Review; Department for Education (2011) A new approach to child poverty: tackling the causes of disadvantage and transforming families’ lives
4 Exceptions exist for those whose children receive the middle or higher rate care component of Disability Living Allowance, those in receipt of Carer’s Allowance, and those who are registered as foster carers
5 Finn, D and Gloster, R (2010) Research Report No. 632 Lone Parent Obligations: A Review of recent evidence on the work-related requirements within the benefit systems of different countries, DWP
6 ONS (2012) Working and Workless households: ONS Statistical Bulletin
7 Analysis of Labour Force Survey data from April-June2009 produced for Gingerbread, in Peacey V (2009) Signing on and stepping up? Single parents’ experience of welfare reform
8 ONS (2011) Working and workless households 2011 – Statistical Bulletin
9 DWP (2012) Households Below Average Income: An analysis of the income distribution 1994/95 – 2010/11
10 ONS (2009) Labour Force Survey data
11 Sissons, P (2012) Quantitative background paper on the introduction of LPO for single parents, Work Foundation (unpublished)
12 The Women and Work Commission (2006) Shaping a Fairer Future
13 Stewart, E et al. (2012) Building a sustainable quality part-time recruitment market, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Full text (PDF 100pp)

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