The financial hardship of poor working families represents a key policy challenge in many countries. Sue Regan interviews Jane Millar, Professor of Social Policy at the University of Bath, United Kingdom, about her research and reflections on recent UK policy developments.

What insights has your research with lone parents provided?

My recent research, in collaboration with Tess Ridge, was a longitudinal qualitative study with sole parents over a period of 15 years. The interviews were undertaken in 2002, 2007 and 2016 and, importantly, were with both the parent (usually the mother) and their children. The first interviews took place 6 months after the sole parent had started work.

A key finding related to the nature of the transition into work. The sole parents often had frequent job changes, the process of moving into work took a long time and many challenges needed to be overcome along the way. The role of children was critical in helping people successfully make this transition and to stay in work – with children helping at home; looking after siblings; and attending child care when they’d rather not. Family relationships also mattered with fathers and grandparents playing important roles. And the work environment made a big difference. Supportive line managers and co-workers and the capacity to have flexibility in hours worked made it possible for parents to stay in work.

How did the policy context change over the period of your study?

Hugely, and this had important consequences for the lone mothers in our study. The start of our research took place in the heyday of the Blair government’s Child Poverty agenda. Our lone mothers generally had access to personal advisers (who helped with the transition into work) and SureStart children’s centres were available locally. Tax Credits (a form of means-tested in-work benefit) had been introduced which, whilst the implementation was not without its problems, did mean that lone parents were having their incomes supplemented in low paid work. Tax Credits are clearly critical to the incomes of working mothers, and this was evident in our study.

By 2016, the policy context had changed dramatically. The GFC had hit and the UK had endured a long period of recession and austerity policy measures. In our last interviews, we were able to see how the children of our lone mothers were faring in their transition into employment. They were joining a very tough labour market with very difficult transitions into work. Meanwhile, most of their mothers had stayed in work but had not progressed at work and remained in low paid, often insecure, employment. For some mothers retirement was approaching and they had not had the ability to build up any financial resources. Feelings of insecurity were common.

Why a longitudinal qualitative study?

Quite simply, it provides data that you wouldn’t get through other methodologies. Being qualitative, the research allowed us to gain understanding of the perspectives, motivations and attitudes of women and children, of their lives and of each other. It enabled us to build a rich picture of the choices and constraints that working mothers face and the role of, and consequences for, their children.

Being longitudinal, it revealed important insights into what makes a difference over time. The initial interviews were a snapshot of the lone mothers’ lives. Subsequent interviews allowed us to get a better sense of the ‘moving picture’ of their lives and, thereby, have much greater depth of insight.  The methodology and timeframe also showed how certain life events, in particular domestic violence and abuse, have very wide-ranging and long-term effects on women’s lives.

The advent of Universal Credit in UK is receiving much international interest. What are your reflections on the introduction of Universal Credit?

The glacial pace of the introduction of Universal Credit means we are still at the start of our learning curve. (The Universal Credit has been fraught with implementation and IT problems, and is now being rolled out very incrementally.)

Recent research that I undertook with Fran Bennett focussed on the policy design of Universal Credit, rather than its implementation challenges. We wanted to look at issues like the operation of the means-test and how it interacts with people’s everyday lives. Our research showed a number of design features where there is a potential mismatch. For example, Universal Credit is designed as a monthly payment intended to mirror how wages are paid on a monthly basis in the labour market. But many people, particularly low paid workers, do not receive monthly wages. The system is based on ‘real-time earnings’ so that Universal Credit is adjusted automatically as income changes. However, all other changes in circumstances still have to be reported. The research also revealed significant gender implications. Second earners (mostly women) have their work incentives weakened by the introduction of Universal Credit and many women will see their incomes reduced.

Universal Credit is converting six payments into one system. This alone I think makes recipients vulnerable. If this one system goes wrong, then we have a big problem.

What are you interested in learning about during your stay in Australia?

The new Investment Approach is an intriguing social policy development here in Australia that I look forward to learning more about. How Australia has designed in-work income support is also of interest given it did not go down the ‘tax credit’ route adopted in some other countries. I’m also keen to explore parallels between the trajectory of policy in relation to sole parents in Australia and how policy has developed in the UK.

Thank you very much, Jane, for sharing your research and insights with Austaxpolicy.

 

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