There are significant variations between neighbourhoods in lone mothers’ rates of employment. For example, Brighton and Hove (two contiguous District Councils) lie near the national average, with 40 per cent of lone mothers in paid work, 14 per cent full-time. Within these areas, though, ward rates (taken as measurement units) varied from 23 per cent to 62 per cent for employment as a whole, and 6 per cent and 25 per cent for full-time work (based on 1991 Census data). Such spatial differences partly overlap with, and reflect, the social groups of lone mothers in an area. Thus it is important to examine the features of the neighbourhood-based contexts that may facilitate or constrain lone mothers’ employment.

The local setting can be a particularly important and relevant part of mothers’ lives—a socially structured factor in the background of opportunities and constraints that are built into mothers’ daily routines (Cochran et al. 1993; Bell and Ribbens 1994). Webs of social ties and relationships can give mothers access to resources both materially, in terms of informal child-care support, and as systems of beliefs or moralities and shared social identities.

In Britain, there is enormous local variation in the availability, cost and quality of formal public, private and voluntary sector child­care provision (Moss 1991). The pre-school facilities that are available within any particular neighbourhood can be crucial to the social support networks into which lone mothers are linked, including their ability to draw on such networks for child care (see Bell and Ribbens 1994). For the most part, lone mothers rely on family and other neighbourhood support networks for child care (Popay and Jones 1990; Bradshaw and Millar 1991). However, local variation of formal and informal child care as a factor in lone mothers’ ability to take up paid work has not been much explored. The availability of this material provision—and the circumstances under which it can be utilized—may well depend on socially created or re-created neighbourhood moral beliefs about mothers working and about lone motherhood. In turn, these beliefs may play a role in the ability of lone mothers to take up paid employment.

Transgressing the local norms or moralities may result in any available kin or friendship child-care support being withdrawn. For example, Jordan et al.’s (1992) study of employment decisions among white, working-class, low-income households (both couple and lone mother), living on a deprived council estate, revealed the importance of the need to comply with local neighbourhood systems of values. Economic rationality was less important than moral ideas about roles and responsibilities in mothers’ uptake of paid work. While the lone mothers on the estate had a stronger desire for paid work than mothers in heterosexual couples, they were juggling this with the prevalent neighbourhood morality that mothers should prioritize caring for their own children and only ‘fit in’ paid work. Jordan et al.’s study was carried out in Exeter but, similarly, the lowest lone-mother employment rates found in Brighton and Hove include large deprived council estates, mainly housing white, working-class people. Possibly the Exeter estate’s system of values also operates in estates in Brighton and Hove.

As a defining status for themselves, lone mothers can regard their situation in various ways (see Crow and Hardey 1992; Edwards and Duncan 1996), from positive to negative, from short-term to long­term. This can affect their embeddedness in particular social support networks. For example, a small-scale study in York (Edwards 1992) revealed a number of middle-class lone mothers who worked full-time utilizing formal day-care provision. They rejected the label lone parent as representing failure, tended not to mix with other lone mothers, and felt out of place with the married mothers who surrounded them in the more suburban home-owning neighbourhoods. A similar situation appears to be the case for the lone mothers we contacted in a suburban area of Brighton, such that they are not keen on taking part in research focusing on lone mothers!

Other groups of lone mothers in some neighbourhoods may value lone motherhood, and perhaps paid work, as part of alternative household daily life, stressing departure from traditional roles and independence from men. They may organize informal child care and other support networks on this basis, as Madje and Neususs (1994) found in an area of Berlin. Typically, these are likely to be middle – class, highly educated lone mothers living in gentrifying areas—as we are also finding in Brighton. Moreover, Gordon’s (1990) study of feminist mothers in Finland and Britain, from a variety of class and ethnic backgrounds, found that lone mothers in particular were involved in local child-care groups organized by themselves.

Black lone mothers, as discussed, are more likely to view paid work and (lone) motherhood as integral. African-Caribbean women in particular are over five times more likely to be lone mothers than white women, and to be single (never married). Single mothers overall show lower rates of paid work (Bartholomew et al. 1992). However, black lone mothers are more likely to be economically active and much less likely to work part-time, irrespective of age and child-care responsibilities (Bruegel 1989). They also, typically, live in inner-city neighbourhoods—areas that often are in economic decline.