Panel Paper: Fifteen Families, Fifteen Years: Employment and Security

Tuesday, June 14, 2016 : 11:50 AM
Clement House, 2nd Floor, Room 06 (London School of Economics)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jane Millar and Tess Ridge, University of Bath UK
Ensuring adequate incomes for poor working families is a key policy challenge in many countries, including the UK. The growth of low-paid and part-time work, sometimes in circumstances of unstable or temporary employment, has increased inequalities in work and means that for many people wages alone are not enough to keep the family at an adequate standard of living. This is particularly true if there is only one potential earner in the family, and so it is lone mothers and couples with pre-school age children who are particularly likely to face financial hardship. The development of in-work wage supplements has been an important policy response, and the UK chosen route has included the extension of a system of means-tested ‘tax credits’, intended not only to support people to move into employment but also to help to sustain work, and even to progress within work to higher wages or longer work hours. Policy attention is therefore increasingly focussed not just on what is needed to help non-employed people get jobs, but also on what helps people who have jobs to keep them and improve their situations in work.  

This paper will explore issues of employment and security through an in-depth analysis of the circumstances of a sample of 15 British families, over a period of about 15 years. These families were all lone-mother families who started work, with tax credits supplementing their wages, in the early 2000s. We interviewed the mothers and the children three times up to around 2007/2008, and again in early 2016. (Supported by Joseph Rowntree Foundation, previous rounds supported by Economic and Social Research Council and UK Department for Work and Pensions.) The early interviews were at a time of economic and employment growth, and a policy environment focused on ‘welfare-to-work’ and tackling child poverty. The last interview is at a time of economic recession and ‘austerity’ policies. 

This is a unique data set. Large-scale longitudinal survey data is an essential tool for mapping employment trajectories and analysing the risk factors associated with different patterns and outcomes. But this sort of longitudinal qualitative research provides insights into motivations, attitudes and choices, exploring how people respond to changes, opportunities and constraints. Having data from both the mothers and the children (or rather, young adults by 2016) is another distinctive feature of the research. From the earlier interviews, it was clear that sustaining work over time was far from straightforward or easy. It required an active input from both the mothers and the children and seeking to find the right balance between work and care tended to mean that the women were often significantly constrained in their employment ‘choices’.

This paper will report initial findings from the 2016 wave of interviews, analysed along with the data from previous rounds. It will focus on exploring issues of employment and income sustainability and security over time. It will consider the implications for concepts of ‘in-work progression’ and ‘work journeys’, and policy approaches to in-work poverty for lone parents.

Full Paper: