Good Enough Mothering? Feminist Perspectives on Lone Motherhood

By Elizabeth Bortolaia Silva | Go to book overview

Chapter 6

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 full-time 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,

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