The Changing Nature of Lone Parenthood and its Consequences

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bath
Department Name: Social and Policy Sciences


The increased number of lone-parent families is one of the most significant social trends to have occurred over the last thirty years. Today one-in-four children live in a lone-parent family compared to just one 1-in-20 in the late 1970s. The numbers of children that will at some time live in a lone-parent family are much higher, as for most it is a transitory state (the average duration being around 5 years), and therefore it is estimated that half of all children will spend at least some time in a lone-parent family. Today therefore lone-parent families can be considered a normal part of family life.
Yet, in spite of its frequency, lone-parenthood remains associated with high rates of joblessness, poverty and maternal depression and children in lone-parent families are widely considered to do less well than those from intact families. Because of the economic and social vulnerability of these families they have been at the heart of policy for over 25 years. Recently the perceived association of lone-parenthood with welfare reliance and poor outcomes for children, particularly in relation to anti-social behaviour among young people brought up by a lone-parent, has been emphasized as a reason for interventions.

Yet while for policy makers lone parenthood is seen as a problem the stylised facts on which much of policy analysis has been based, fails to recognise the extraordinary pace of change in the extent of lone-parenthood and the fluidity and diversity of lone-parent families today. Hence the basis for policy discussions is all too often both dated and treats lone-parents as a homogeneous population and defines them on the basis on current family structure, rather than examining the full family history faced by children. There is very little empirical evidence for the UK on how lone-parenthood has changed, or on how the growth in lone-parenthood (to the extent that it is now a social norm) may have changed the evidence base for assessing its consequences for parents and children. There is also surprising little evidence for the UK on the extent to which the relationship between lone-parenthood and poor outcomes, for mothers and their children, is causal - the question of how, if lone parents had remained with their child's father, poverty levels and children's outcomes (including academic achievements, behavioural problems and so on) would be affected has not been answered.

This project will fill this substantial gap in the academic literature by examining data from that tracks individuals over time. We will examine the trajectories of children (and their parents) born in 1958; 1970 and 2000, looking at changes in the experience of lone parenthood over time and in its consequences. Questions we will address include: How does the experience of lone-parenthood leads to a shift in the trajectories of both parents and children? Are there a set of "typical" routes into lone parenthood that can be identified? And do these routes matter to parent and child outcomes? Characteristics, such as the length of preceding relationships, time to re-partnering (step-parenthood) and the length of time individuals spend as lone parents, will be analyzed to identify "typologies" of lone parenthood and from this we will assess how outcomes for children are affected by these characteristics. A particularly important feature of some lone parent families may be multiple partnership transitions. In the US this has been found to be a particularly important reason for children doing less well in some lone parent families. We will assess UK evidence for this. Finally, we will examine whether the lone parent population is becoming more diverse and whether inequality between lone parent families is increasing. For example, as lone-parenthood has become a much more common experience is it also an increasingly unequal experience with some mothers doing well, retaining work and receiving maintenance, while others struggle to avoid poverty.

Planned Impact

Lone parenthood, poverty and child development has remained a key dimension of social policy research for at least 25 years and remains central to the current government's objectives around child poverty and social mobility. This project will achieve a step-change in advancing our understanding about the changing nature of lone parenthood, its diversity and association with child outcomes and will be of substantial benefit to policy makers in the government as it seeks to improve equality of opportunity in Britain. To date the influence of family structure on social mobility has been missing from the policy agenda and little evidence exists to support policy in this area. We therefore would expect the work to be of significant interest to the newly established Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. We would also anticipate communicating our findings to officials at the DWP and Treasury. The findings would also be of considerable interest to non-government organizations such as Gingerbread, Child Poverty Action Group, and the Single Parents Action Network. We will actively engage in ensuring the research findings reach these groups, as outlined in our Pathways to Impact statement. Social Policy at Bath and the Centre for Market and Public Organisation at Bristol (where Gregg and Harkness are associates) have outstanding reputations for high quality research, dissemination and for fostering wider impact. Recognition of the impact of research work at Bath on policy and practice is evidenced by its recent award of the prestigious Queen's Anniversary Award for Higher and Further Education. The award to Bath cited our ''Influential research into child poverty and support for vulnerable people'. This specifically included our research on lone parenthood and on children and poverty.

We will stage a major conference toward the end of the project to address a broad audience. This will be in London and we will seek to invite other major researchers on family structure, poverty and children's life chances from the UK and abroad. This will provide a key opportunity both for influencing policy makers and getting the research out into the public domain. We would seek to get charities and campaign groups such as Gingerbread and Child Poverty Action Group to engage in this conference ant to involve policy makers, such as Alan Milburn (the poverty and social mobility Tsar), and senior civil servants from the Treasury, Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education. We would anticipate producing a short briefing paper for this event which we would disseminate to selected policy makers, MPs, NGOs and the press.

The project will exploit Gregg, Harkness and Millar's extensive links to, and experience of working with, policy makers and practitioners to ensure impact (see also the impact statement and attached CVs). In addition to the briefing paper produced for the launch we will also produce a number of briefing papers aimed at different audiences such as employers groups or single parents. To achieve wider dissemination we would hope to produce an article for the ESRC's "Britain in 2014" and for the CMPO's "Research in Public Policy" bulletin. We will maintain a project websites and will post all outputs alongside a blog and podcast on the findings. We would anticipate having press releases around conferences and/or publication of the research, in conjunction with the University of Bath and CMPO press officers.
Description The project examined how the nature and consequences of lone motherhood changed over recent decades. Our research was conducted in two parts. First, using used data from the 1958, 1970 and 2000 birth cohort studies we examined changes in family structures and how they affected children's outcomes. Second we used more recent panel data from the British Household Panel Survey to track women over time to see how becoming a lone mother influenced their economic circumstances.

Lone Mother Families

One-in-three children born in 2000 spent some time with a lone mother by age 11, three times as many as in 1958. Many of these children experienced lone parenthood early, one-in-ten being born to a lone mother and a further quarter experiencing lone parenthood before age five.

Over time lone motherhood became increasingly correlated with socio-economic characteristics with young mothers and the less-educated particularly likely to become lone mothers. This has increased inequalities in the parental and economic resources available to children in lone parent families and those living with two biological parents.

Lone Motherhood and Economic Outcomes

Low employment rates, earnings and incomes observed among lone mothers are partly explained by the high economic cost of motherhood; partly by "selection" into lone motherhood; and by the absence of a partner's potential earnings. Low rates of employment among lone mothers' are not found to be caused by lone motherhood per se. Instead lone mothers behave like those with partners, with first-time motherhood leading to large reductions in employment and earnings and lone motherhood having little additional effect.
For all families the birth of a child is associated with falling income, mainly as a result of decreased female earnings. Those that became lone mothers through separation see further falls in income because of losses in partner's earning, this fall being of similar magnitude to that associated with first-time parenthood.

We conclude that addressing the problem of lone mothers' economic disadvantage will require policy makers to address the high economic cost of motherhood as later intervention are at a point where much of the damage to women's economic circumstances has already occurred.

Children's Outcomes

On average children who experience lone motherhood have poorer cognitive outcomes than those who grow up with both biological parents, gaps in attainment being larger the earlier lone motherhood occurs. Using information on the characteristics of parents and children observed before parents split or, for those who are single at birth, at birth we assess the extent to which these gaps result from lone motherhood. Characteristics explain a large share of this gap although a difference remains. There is a great deal of heterogeneity between children. In particular children in lone mother families whose mothers have poor mental health or financial difficulties have particularly poor cognitive outcomes, while those whose mothers have aspirations for their children and establish routines fare better. Lone parenthood in the past was associated with a deterioration in parenting - lone motherhood for example was associated with less authoritative parenting, more maternal depression and fewer educational aspirations. Today that difference has all but disappeared and these differences cannot account for the gap in attainment between children in lone parent families and those with two parents. The deterioration of children's economic status following lone parenthood makes a much more significant contribution to attainment gaps.
Finally our results suggest that the largest negative effects of lone parenthood are seen for more able children who under-perform relative to their high-ability peers in intact families.

We currently have 3 papers from the project under review at leading journals and 2 forthcoming book chapters. We anticipate publication in 2016/17.
Exploitation Route The findings of the project are of interest to government and NGOs such as Gingerbread. We have presented the findings on children's outcomes at the British Academy to policy and practitioner audience. The DWP team working on the Family Stability Review and Child Poverty and Social Mobility Commission have been in contact about this work. It is also of interest to the Scottish government. We will also be sharing our findings with Gingerbread (who have attended seminars where this work has been presented) and hope that this may influence their service provision and campaigns.

The research has opened up several potential areas for new research. In particular we would like to extend our current work to examine reasons for the growth in lone parenthood, and why it has become increasingly common among particular groups and at intergenerational patterns using data on the children of the 1970 cohort members. Second, we would like to extend our work using the MCS. To date, because we have comparing children across cohorts and therefore restricted our analysis to variables that are comparable across time, we have not yet fully exploited this data. In particular we would like to explore the information on father involvement and its relationship with child outcomes.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Our research on lone parent families is helping to understand both changes in family structure and the implications for children growing up today. Our research has been presented to policy audiences including an event at the British Academy "Family Life in the 21st Century: Changes and opportunities" on 15 May 2014. The event included a roundtable with The Rt Hon David Lammy MP, Chair of ll-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics; Alison Garnham, CEO Child Poverty Action Group; and Alison Holt, Social Affairs Correspondent, BBC. The event was attended by research users including civil servants including from the DWP Family Stability Review Team. The research was also presented at the National Festival of Research Methods in July. An article was written for Society Central and this was reported in the Observer ( ) and covered elsewhere in the press. The research is expected to have ongoing impact. In particular we have recently been able to update our results with the age 11 MCS data on key stage 2 test scores which was released in mid-2015. These are of particular importance to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission and the DWP work on family stability and we will be presenting our updated findings to both in the coming months.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description British Academy Event 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The event was attended by policy makers from the DWP, Gingerbread, DFE and other organisations including the BBC. There was a lively discussion following the presentations, with Rt Hon David Lammy MP and Alison Garnham, CEO of the Child Poverty Action Group taking part in these.

I had discussions with Gingerbread and DWP representatives following the event. We have been asked to feed our findings into the DWP's Family Stability Review and to present work at the DWP. The findings are also of interest to Gingerbread with whom we are in touch with about the project findings. We hope this will lead to further collaborative work in the future.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description National Festival of Research Methods 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I took part in the National Festival of Research Methods which showcases current research and methods in social science. The event was attended by non-specialists and post-graduate students. The talk sparked debate and a piece was written for Society Central.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description Observer / Society Central 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact An article for Society Central was written. This presented key findings in an accessible manner to a wide audience. The article aims to dispel myths about lone parent families and their children. These findings were picked up and reported in The Observer, generating significant interest. The link for this is:

The Observer article was shared in Facebook 14,712 times and had 327 tweets.

The impact of this was to raise awareness of how common lone parenthood is and to dispel notions that lone parent children are necessarily disadvantaged.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014