Sarah Johnsen introduces a briefing paper exploring the issues
Concerns about high unemployment rates and levels of poverty amongst single parent households have prompted a number of OECD countries to target lone parents for ‘activation’ reforms. These reforms aim to increase their participation in the paid workforce. In some respects the UK has been slower to apply work-related conditions to this group than other OECD countries, but their entitlements are now increasingly tied to their participation in the labour market.
The most significant change has been the introduction of Lone Parent Obligations (LPOs). These were introduced in 2008, at which point lone parents with a youngest child aged 12 or older were transferred from Income Support to Jobseekers Allowance (JSA). The age threshold has since reduced, such that all lone parents with a youngest child aged five or older are required to seek paid employment.
LPO flexibilities exempt lone parents from some requirements. But a number of support agencies report that Jobcentre staff often misinterpret them or communicate them poorly. In a further change, earlier this year Jobcentre advisers were given discretionary power to require lone parents with a youngest child aged three or four to undertake work-related activity, by enrolling on training courses, for example.
These changes have prompted significant controversy – though apparently with little effect on the speed with which they have been implemented. Opponents have argued that the reforms are misguided in that they fail to recognise that it is not a lack of motivation preventing lone parents from working (and research demonstrates consistently that the vast majority do want to work). Rather, their low participation rates stem in large part from structural obstacles such as limited availability of jobs and/or childcare. Grave concerns have also been raised about the potentially severe financial and psychological impacts of benefit sanctions on lone parents and, by extension, their children.
On the other side of the debate, proponents of activation reforms highlight the financial, psychological and other benefits of paid work. They emphasise the links between non-engagement with the paid workforce and poverty, and view improving parents’ uptake of work as a critical ingredient in the ongoing battle against child poverty. They also assert that in return for the support provided by the state, lone parents (and other claimants) have a duty to use it and move into or return to paid employment.
The question of whether these reforms do in fact improve the financial wellbeing and prospects of lone parent households is a moot one. There is a lack of evidence regarding the long-term impacts of activation on the people affected. For example, it is not yet fully understood how (or indeed whether) particular ‘carrot’ (support) and ‘stick’ (sanction) elements influence lone parents’ decisions and actions regarding finding and taking up paid work. Nor do we know what the long-term effects on their income and health are.
Further to this, evaluations of conditional welfare arrangements outside the UK (most notably in the USA) indicate that welfare to work reforms can lead to unintended consequences, including extreme hardship or even destitution. These inevitably have a profoundly negative effect on others, especially children. There is therefore a pressing need to more fully understand the scale, severity and nature of impacts – be they positive or negative, intended or unintended.
These issues are currently being explored in detail in our Welfare conditionality: sanctions, support and behaviour change study. The history of lone parent activation reforms in the UK, and rationales underpinning debates put forward by both advocates and opponents, are reviewed in our briefing paper.