The concept of rational economic decision making, and what factors are relevant to and constitute it, are not neutral and gender-free. In particular, ‘rational economic man’ is a self-contained uncontextualized and emotion-free individual agent, whose actions are governed and calculated by the self-interested drive to maximize economic well-being to himself (and, perhaps, to members of his family). Even where it is acknowledged that economic agents live in households, these are seen as gender-free economic units, who rationally allocate their differentiated labour (to paid work, household work and so on) so as to maximize resources. Social relations within and between households are not seen as important.

In the public, male sphere of the market, the model of individual selfishness is assumed to be the most rational. In contrast, in the private, female sphere of the family, a collective rationality of duty and tenderness is assumed. Not only are these public-private assumptions deeply gendered, they are also inaccurate. The public sphere of markets could not operate without collective social behaviour and mores (Hodgson 1988). Similarly, the incentives for paid work are as much social as economic. In a like manner, the private sphere of family life contains instrumental and individualized interactions over resource use and allocation, as much as it is concerned with intimacy and connection (Ribbens and Edwards 1995). Furthermore, what happens in one sphere interacts with the other, with men and women differentially constituted with respect to various sorts of markets, states and families (rather than there being one version of the market, the family and the state).

The assumption that lone mothers can be regarded as rational economic men is best exemplified in an influential body of work carried out (naturally enough) by econometricians (for example, Dilnot and Duncan 1992; Ermisch and Wright 1991; Jenkins 1992; Walker 1990). The emphasis is on lone mothers as an amalgam or set of individually specific variables (age, qualifications, age of youngest child, entitlement to benefits, receipt of maintenance, housing tenure and so on). Through statistical analysis of large data sets (derived, for example, from the General Household Survey or the Labour Force Survey), the aim is to measure how far, and in what ways, these individual attributes predict lone mothers’ propensity to participate in the labour market. It would then be possible to estimate how social policy alterations (for example, changing benefit or maintenance levels) would affect relative participation rates.

One particular problem for these models is the key role, under­pinned by notions of rational economic man, given to the wage commanded by different attributes. It is this wage that is seen to best describe the power of each attribute variable in accounting for participation in the labour market. Most lone mothers, however, do not have paid work, so in the majority of cases it is not possible to correlate wage variation directly with attribute variation when producing statistical equations. Thus analysts have to estimate the wages that non-participating lone mothers would be expected to obtain in relation to their attributes. Different analysts tend to carry out this procedure in different ways, and also do not include the same range of variables (depending on the particular data set drawn upon), so the statistical results vary substantially, and sometimes in

contradictory ways, in each account. Thus Ermisch and Wright (1991) emphasize the labour market in explaining lone mothers’ declining employment, Walker (1990) emphasizes the benefit structure, and Jenkins (1992) stresses the age of youngest child and child-care costs, plus a range of ‘non-economic’ (and implicitly inexplicable) factors.

It is not our aim here to comment comprehensively on the explanatory limitations of econometric modelling, some of which may be accepted by econometricians themselves. Rather, we want to take issue with the theoretical assumption used in these models, that lone mothers act as rational economic men, and with the concomitant neglect of social process. Lone mothers are seen as making individual, economically rational calculations about what wage their resources (educational level, previous occupational experience, etc.) will bring them in the labour market, as set against the costs (paying for child care, loss of housing benefit, etc.), and as judged in relation to benefit levels. They then make the decision to take up employment, or not, on the basis of this calculation. Having made this assumption, all that remains, econometrically, is to estimate what effect these variables exert on the employment decision.

The model of rational economic man also underpins much research in the social policy tradition. One example is the influential body of work advocating an expansion of day care to allow lone (and other) mothers to take up paid work (for example, Cohen and Fraser 1991; Holtermann 1992). Here, cost-benefit analyses are employed to estimate the financial results for both state expenditure and lone mothers’ incomes. Public money spent on child care is shown to be a good investment for the state, bringing returns in the form of increased revenue from taxation and reduced outlays on lone mothers’ income support. Lone (and other) mothers are shown to have an incentive to take up employment because affordable child care means they will be financially better off.3 The assumptions about lone mothers’ employment behaviour are similar to the econometric work, but now the focus is more squarely on national social policy rather than individuals in the labour market. Cohen and Fraser (1991), however, in their calculations, do make allowances for some lone mothers not to make such an economically rational decision. As such, they implicitly acknowledge that other (gendered) forces are also at play, although they do not appear to see these as varying by social group and by social setting.

The model of rational economic man assumes an empowered individual able to act alone and to carry out conscious planning to maximize financial gain in taking up paid work. This is imbued with masculinist, class-based and ethnocentric assumptions. Social factors and various gendered beliefs about the compatibility of motherhood and paid work, which can lead to different conceptions of what is a ‘rational choice’ (Hollis and Nell 1975), are not seen to play a part. (This is despite the British state itself having long had dilemmas over its stance towards lone mothers—Bradshaw 1989.) So, for example, Jenkins (1992) does not regard black lone mothers’ greater propensity to take up paid work as related to their ethnicity (by their socially held conceptions of motherhood in relation to paid work) but as a function of their tendency to have high levels of educational attainment, which in turn places them in a more favourable position in the labour market (in terms of the wage they can receive). That black (mainly African-Caribbean and African) women generally may attain educational qualifications because, as a social group, they are more likely to see motherhood and paid work as integral, and wish to better place themselves in a racially (as well as sexually) discriminatory labour market (as we discuss again below), does not enter into the picture.

In order to understand the process of lone mothers’ uptake of paid work, we must move away from a focus on individuals as separate selves (implicitly powerful and economically autonomous males) towards an understanding of gendered institutional and social processes, and the expectations and beliefs shared by social groups that may produce differentiated notions of rational courses of action.