The effect of employment on the mental health of lone mothers in the UK before and after New Labour’s welfare reforms

Susan Harkness

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
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Abstract

Since 1999 a series of reforms have been introduced to the UK welfare system with the aim of increasing lone parents’ employment rates. Increased employment was expected not only to reduce rates of lone parent poverty but lead to wider benefits including improvements in their mental health. Yet for lone mothers there is little evidence on the relationship between work and mental health. Using data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) from 1991 to 2008 this paper assesses how lone mothers’ mental health, measured in the BHPS using the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), is influenced by employment and how this relationship changed over the period of welfare reform. We estimate a range of panel data models and compare the results for lone and partnered mothers.
In the period after welfare reform being in work was associated with significant improvements in the mental health of lone mothers. This was in sharp contrast to the situation prior to reform when there was very little association between employment and mental health: both those in and out of work had a very high risk of poor mental health. The change in the relationship between work and mental health occurred alongside a sharp increase in lone mothers employment rates. For partnered mothers, employment was also associated with improved mental health, although the effect was much smaller than that for lone mothers in the period after welfare reform and showed no significant change over time. The fact that partnered mothers did not see any change in the relationship between work and mental health over time suggests that reforms to the welfare system have been an important reason for the observed improvements in working lone mothers’ mental health. We conclude that employment under a supportive policy environment employment can improve lone mothers’ mental health, but that these gains are not automatic. In the 1990s lone mothers saw no significant mental health benefits to work.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)763-791
Number of pages29
JournalSocial Indicators Research
Volume128
Issue number2
Early online date29 Jul 2015
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2016

Keywords

  • lone mothers, work, welfare reform, mental health

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