Rational economic man or lone mothers in context?
The uptake of paid work
Rosalind Edwards and Simon Duncan
Lone mothers, caring for dependent children, are a rising proportion of the population in western Europe. Poverty and dependence on state benefits are increasingly important characteristics of lone – mother families in Britain, as compared with most other west European countries. Over 60 per cent now have incomes below half the national average, and almost 70 per cent rely on state benefits for the bulk of their income (Roll 1992).
Although state benefit levels in some west European countries are more generous than in Britain, where benefit levels mean that those who wholly or partially rely on them tend to exist on very low incomes, a major explanation for lone mothers’ economic marginalization seems to be their decreasing uptake of paid work.
In 1990, only 39 per cent of lone mothers in Britain were employed, with just 17 per cent in full-time paid work, as compared with around 50 per cent in employment in the mid-1970s, 25 per cent full-time. Over the same period, uptake of part-time and fulltime paid work by partnered mothers increased substantially, to outstrip lone mothers’ employment rates. These differentials operate independently of the age of children (where more lone mothers now have pre-school-age children).
In all the other west European countries (except for Ireland and the Netherlands), there are much higher rates of employment for lone mothers, especially for full-time work (Roll 1992). Similarly, in the rest of western Europe usually more lone mothers are in paid work than married mothers. Lone mothers in Britain thus appear to exhibit increasingly ‘economically irrational’ behaviour in comparison with their west European counterparts. This has given rise to a debate in Britain, focused around two main discourses (see also Mclntosh, Chapter 8, Phoenix, Chapter 10, and Roseneil and Mann, Chapter 11, all in this volume, and Edwards and Duncan 1996).
In one discourse, lone mothers are seen as a threat to society, morally as well as financially; they are formative members of an underclass that has willingly removed itself from legitimate economic rationality and mores, turning instead to state benefits, the unofficial economy, and even crime. In the other discourse, lone mothers are seen as a social problem; they want to behave in an economically rational way and take up paid work to better provide for themselves and their children, but the structure and nature of the British welfare state prevent them from doing so.
The first discourse seeks to remove the social threat by penalizing lone mothers, forcing them to act in a legitimate, economically rational way. Reducing benefits, for example, will force them into paid work or dissuade them from having children they cannot support ‘out of wedlock’ in the first place. In contrast, the second discourse proposes welfare reforms to alleviate the perceived constraints on economically rational behaviour. Thus changes to the benefit system should ensure that lone mothers are better off in paid work than they are living on benefits, and on increased provision of publicly funded child care (to levels commensurate with other European countries) to remove a fundamental block to taking up full-time employment.
The solutions associated with both discourses operate with a simple stimulus-response model of social action. They are based on a ‘rational economic man’ assumption (usually more explicit in welfare economics and more implicit in social policy analyses). Individual economic agents maximize their personal welfare based on cost-benefit calculations,1 and national social policy is assumed to be dominant in setting the stage for this. Change the stimulus (such as benefit levels or child-care provision), the economic calculus changes, and lone mothers will respond appropriately (by taking up paid work). Lone mothers’ own capacities for action, in relation to a variety of social contexts and settings, are shut out. This point is all the more important because, as Bradshaw and Millar (1991:33) note, there is actually little coherent empirical knowledge about how and why lone mothers take up employment or do not.
In this chapter, we argue that it is crucial to take account of the fact that the overwhelming majority of lone parents are women who are mothers, and who socially negotiate particular ‘gendered moral rationalities’ that operate in particular settings and in ways different from individualized economic rationality. Fatherhood is subject to very different moral rationalities, and indeed British lone fathers are far more likely to work full-time and to bring up their children in better material circumstances (Popay and Jones 1990).
National policy does provide one context for lone mothers to take up paid work, but social processes do not operate only at the level of the nation state. In our analysis of the constraints on and opportunities for lone mothers’ employment, we need to envisage a more complex context-action structure.
Social contexts other than national policies include constraining or enabling gendered moral rationalities and identities with different prescriptions about the relationship of motherhood and paid work. These moral rationalities and identities are held and negotiated by different social groups, including lone mothers themselves, and are often located within support networks in particular neighbourhood settings. Similarly, gendered divisions of labour within local labour markets structure both the supply of jobs and social expectations of working for a wage, and provide another influential context for lone mothers’ decisions about paid work.
In the following sections we explore each of these contexts, demonstrating the considerable variability in lone mothers’ employment by social group and geographical setting, drawing on data from our ongoing research into the processes underlying lone mothers’ uptake of paid work.2 Finally, we examine how state welfare regimes feed into these processes by positioning lone mothers as workers and/ or mothers. This gives a complementary angle to the discussion undertaken by Millar in Chapter 5 of this book.