The Labor Market Orientation of Single Mothers on Welfare in the Netherlands

By van Wel, Frits; Knijn, Trudie | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 2001 | Go to article overview

The Labor Market Orientation of Single Mothers on Welfare in the Netherlands


van Wel, Frits, Knijn, Trudie, Journal of Marriage and Family


Since the implementation of the new General Assistance Act (1996) in The Netherlands, single parents on welfare have become obliged to seek work as soon as their youngest child has become 5 years old. This article presents a study of 1,049 Dutch single mothers on welfare. Using LISREL, a conceptual model is examined for the effects of both the past and current circumstances of the mothers on their labor orientation and on their steps toward a full-time job. An individual mother's motivation to work is particularly related to the importance she attaches to caring (care ethos) as opposed to working (work ethos) and to the problems she anticipates in combining care and work.

Key Words: care, single mothers, The Netherl, work

On January 1, 1996, a new General Social Assistance Act came into force in The Netherlands (Algemene bijstandswet, 1998). This act implies that policy must be aimed at preventing a situation in which a period of caring for young children would represent a structural impediment to achieving economic independence, especially for women. The new Abw (General Social Assistance Act) starts from a position that stresses the importance of the claimant's maintaining his or her ties with the labor market and making preparations for future participation during periods when caring tasks have been carried out.

The 1996 act implies that single mothers, from the moment their youngest child reaches the age of 5 years, have an obligation to work. With this new regulation, the Dutch welfare state discarded its former principles of the breadwinner-motherhood regime, which originated at the beginning of the 1970s. Under that regime, full-time motherhood was protected within marriage by generous provisions for male breadwinners and outside marriage by rather generous social assistance benefits for single mothers (Bussemaker, Van Drenth, Knijn, & Plantenga, 1997).

The introduction of the new General Social Assistance Act in The Netherlands took place against the background of the debate on the growing discrepancy between working people and the unemployed (Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid, 1990). The promotion of women's labor-market participation also played a role (Emancipatieraad, 1996). The municipalities, which are responsible for the implementation of the assistance act, were given greater discretionary powers to provide individual tailor-made solutions in order to facilitate the outflow of women from social security arrangements. In the wake of the new policy aimed at encouraging state benefit recipients to become "economically active," the attempts to guide single mothers on welfare toward employment were intensified. These single mothers formed a group that made up almost 25% of the entire group of benefit recipients; these women had previously been given little attention because of their "insuitability for employment."

The intention to stimulate single mothers' independence from welfare benefits by forcing them to get paid jobs encountered much resistance. Primary resistance arose from the unsolved cultural tension between caring for children and the obligation to find a full-time job. Full-time work has not been and is still not an accepted practice for mothers of young children in The Netherlands. Many mothers (about 50%) continue to withdraw from the labor market when they have a baby (Ministerie van Sociale Zaken en Werkgelegenheid, 1997). When mothers are employed, the majority works part-time, earning supplemental income. Hardly any mothers in The Netherlands earn enough to be qualified as economically independent. Motherhood has been given priority, and this attitude is shared not only by mothers themselves, but also by local officials who are now responsible for the discretion of the new Social Assistance Act. A second, related objection to the new act has to do with the lack of good childcare facilities in The Netherlands. Until 1996, only 10% of all young children under school age went to day-care centers, and there were long waiting lists. …

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