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Who are lone parents? Challenging the media perception

08 December 2014

Guest blogger Professor Ronald McQuaid takes a look at the facts and figures around lone parenting.

In the media, lone parents are often portrayed as young, unemployed mothers on benefits whose children will grow up disadvantaged. How accurate is this view? Figures cited in this report for the GCPH by Edinburgh Napier and Stirling Universities shed a more accurate light on the case.

There are 169,707 lone parent households with dependent children in Scotland, that is 27.6% of all such households, although the figure is 40.4% in Glasgow. 

Gender, age and relationship status 

In Scotland around 8% of lone parent households are male and 92% are female. 

However, lone parents are not mostly young mothers. Their average age is around 38 years old. Only 2% are teenaged parents. They have fractionally fewer children than married couples or those cohabiting (averaging 1.62 children compared to 1.82 and 1.66 respectively). 

Are lone parents more likely to be unmarried mothers? Around half (49%) had previously been married, while just over half of lone mothers (52%) and a third of lone fathers (35%) had never married according to UK Labour Force Survey data.  Many of these parents had been in long term relationships before separating from their partners. 

Employment and skills

Most lone parents are actually in paid employment, although they are less likely to be in employment than others. Labour Force Survey statistics for 2013 indicate that 59.1% of UK lone parents are in employment (58.1% in Scotland but considerably lower for Glasgow (49.5%) reflecting Glasgow’s overall lower employment rate).

This compares to 72.2% of married or cohabiting women and 90.7% of men with dependent children, and both 70.0% of men and 65.7% of women without dependent children (aged 16-64 years). So although we need to take account of people in early retirement and women whose children have left home, lone mothers are only slightly less likely to be in paid work than other women. Unsurprisingly lone parents are much more likely to work part-time (56.6% do so), although this was the case for 60.9% of lone mothers working, which does mean that nearly two out of five of lone mothers do work full-time.

In the major Scottish Working for Families programme from 2004-08, over 11,000 disadvantaged parents were assisted in moving into or sustaining work. Lone parents, who made up 71% of the participants, were more likely to successfully move into, or sustain, work than others.

Crucially, lone parents are more likely to be in low paid, part-time work and to have few qualifications. This results in them having low earned income and overall household income even after benefits are considered. The average weekly income of Scottish lone parents was around £368 in 2010-11 compared to £800 for couples with children.

This suggests the need to assist lone parents to increase their qualifications and skills so that they can enter long term, better quality jobs with the opportunity of full-time work when their circumstances allow. So, current policy needs a much greater emphasis on education and training for lone parents. Providing good quality, flexible, affordable childcare enables lone parents to work the hours that will benefit their long-term employment prospects as well as benefiting their children.

Lone parents now have to join Job Seekers Allowance when their youngest child reaches five years old. At this stage, often insufficient account is taken of their particular problems such as childcare, shift working, and the lack of qualifications. There is a need for relevant specialist training for Job Centre Plus staff. There should be more opportunities to use the time before their children reach 5 years to improve education and skills of lone parents so they can be ready for jobs with better prospects.

Finally, lone parent families are more likely to experience poverty than couple families, partly due to the effects of being less likely to work full-time or to have a dual income in the household.

Reality vs media perception

So, in real terms, a lone parent is likely to be a woman in her late 30s, be working, often part-time, have worse health and be poorer than others – hardly the usual impression given by much of the media. 

Further information 

The figures in this blog come from a variety of sources as there is no single source of statistics.  You can find more information on the following websites:

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About the author

Ronald McQuaid Professor of Work and Employment

Contact
Ronald_mcquaid_uni_of_stirling_portrait

Ronald McQuaid is Professor of Work and Employment at the University of Stirling. He has carried out work for many regional, national and supra-national bodies such as the European Commission, UK, Scottish and Northern Ireland Governments, UK Commission for Employment and Skills, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and various agencies and employers in the fields of employment, unemployment, partnerships and economic development.

He joint authored several reports relating to lone parents and employment for the Equality Commission Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Government and GCHP and he led the national evaluation of the Scottish Working for Families Fund (2004-8).

His has degrees from Lancaster University, London School of Economics and his doctorate from Harvard University. A long time ago he headed economic development in two Scottish local authorities.

Read all blog posts by Ronald McQuaid

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