Poster Paper: The Changing Conseuquences of Lone Parenthood for British Women

Saturday, November 9, 2013
West End Ballroom A (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Paul Gregg, Susan Harkness and Marina Fernandez Salgado, University of Bath

The rise in lone-parenthood in the UK, to the extent that it is now a social norm, is one of the most profound social changes to have taken place in recent decades. Yet in spite of its growth very little is known about how the nature of lone-parenthood, or its consequences, has changed compared to times when it was relatively rare. This paper focuses on the effects of becoming a lone-parent on outcomes for mothers (90% of lone-parent families are female headed). It examines the impact of becoming a lone mother on employment, earnings and income prospects, focusing in particular on (i) how these prospects have changed over time, and (ii) whether the experience of lone-parenthood has become increasingly diverse.

The paper traces the effect of lone motherhood on women’s outcomes using panel data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) and multilevel modeling techniques. The BHPS contains a rich set of information on both employment and family histories, including retrospective marital and cohabitation histories.  Using multilevel models the paper assesses first how having children affects the employment, wages and income of women. Second it examines how subsequent transitions into lone-parenthood influence these outcomes. Of particular interest is how different “routes into” lone-parenthood influences these outcomes: do those that become lone-parents when their children are older, for example, fare better than those with younger children?

For couples with children both parents’ income matters to total family income. The consequences of lone-parenthood are therefore separated into those changes resulting from a loss (or gain) in own income, and those resulting from the loss of partners’ income. This approach allows us to assess the drivers that affect lone-parent well-being, and allows an assessment of whether the observed poor outcomes for lone mothers are a consequence of lone-parenthood per se, or whether there are other factors which are driving the observed relationship. Finally it asks whether lone-parenthood leaves a long-term scar even after re-partnering or children leaving home.

A second focus of the paper is on whether as lone-parenthood has become more common there is also greater heterogeneity among lone-parents. As lone-parenthood has become more common, there have been substantial changes in routes into lone-parenthood – for example an increasing share of lone-parents today were not previously married, while the age, number of children, former partnership history and father involvement may also have changed. Second, as mothers increasingly work their access to independent incomes has grown and this may have a substantial bearing on the ability of lone mothers’ ability to thrive.

The paper concludes by discussing competing explanations for the observed poor socio-economic outcomes of lone mothers. Is this a result of negative selection - i.e. these women would have done poorly even had they not become lone mothers? Alternatively, is lone-parenthood such a dominant characteristic that it leads to poor outcomes for mothers regardless of their background, and what can policy do to alleviate the negative consequences?