More paid work improves life of lone mothers

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The Independent Online
A new study of Britain's 1.4 million single mothers suggests some improvement in their lives, with more lone parents working than ever before. It also finds a growing proportion of them gave birth to their children within a long-term relationship which later broke down. The great majority were part of a couple when they had their first child, and 4 out 10 had planned their pregnancies.

The Policy Studies Institute, funded by the Department of Social Security, has produced a series of reports on single mothers. It finds lone parenthood is usually a temporary state, lasting only three or four years for most families.

The median age of single mothers increased from 31 to 33 in four years, suggesting that the increase in numbers is due to more of them remaining unmarried, rather than more people becoming single mothers.

Changes in the rules governing benefits have helped many more back to work. Now that they can qualify to transfer from income support to the top-up benefit, family credit - if they work as little as 16 hours a week - more have taken jobs.

Forty-two per cent had paid jobs in 1993 and that group had greater optimism about their ability to become fully independent in the future. A third of those not working gave lack of child care, and inability to pay for it, as the reason.

The study, conducted just before the Child Support Agency started up, found 30 per cent of single parents were getting some maintenance from absent fathers, though less than one-tenth of their incomes came from maintenance payments. Those who did receive maintenance had a better chance of getting back to work, as it helped to pay for child care.

Benefits provided two-thirds of lone parents' incomes. Most of them were council tenants, and a half lived in poor housing with damp, decay and vermin belying the idea that they got priority housing treatment.

Dr Alan Marsh of the PSI, who conducted the research, said lone parents now had a better chance of establishing at least partial independence through work if they could gather part-time earnings, family credit and some maintenance from the absent father, "to avoid the hardship experienced by many out of work".

The National Council For One Parent Families said the research "totally undermines the arguments of those calling for cuts to lone parent benefits". However, Treasury plans are to include ending for new claimants both the pounds 6.30-a-week one-parent benefit and the pounds 5.20-a-week lone parent premium in the means-tested income support.

Such cuts would undermine efforts by single parents to take jobs, the council said. It added: "This research shatters the myth of lone parents as feckless, irresponsible women. It shows women do not choose to have children alone."