No Love on the Dole: the influence of the UK means-tested welfare system on partnering and family structure

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Since, on average, mothers and children living in stable two-parent families have a lower risk of poverty, the extent to which welfare systems may affect relationship stability, family formation and repartnering is a compelling social policy issue. However, driven by concerns about work incentives and reducing ‘welfare dependency,’ policy interest and research has to date focused on understanding lone parents’ labour supply and encouraging the transition from benefits into employment. Social scientists have theorised a great deal about changing family forms and a rich literature continues to explore the role welfare plays in reinforcing gender equality. However, the more contentious issue of whether and how welfare systems may affect family structure is a neglected area of academic enquiry. Whether lone motherhood is a ‘lifestyle choice’ or ‘Hobson’s choice’ has polarised normative debates about welfare dependency, but limited evidence of how low-income women make family formation decisions has created space for a popular consensus to emerge in which the behavioural effects of welfare on family structure are seen to arise purely in response to financial incentives. Politicians and policy makers who lament the decline of the traditional family have called for changes in the tax and benefit system to promote marriage and abolish the ‘couple penalty,’ so called to describe the financial differentials in welfare entitlement between lone-parent and couple-parent families. Some believe this differential treatment incentivises lone motherhood and discourages two-parent family formation, others that it fosters welfare dependency and benefit fraud among lone mothers who, for reasons of monetary gain, may ‘pretend to separate’ or fail to disclose the presence of a partner. In fact, very little is known or understood about how low-income women make family formation, partnership dissolution and repartnering decisions and, in the UK, the influence of welfare systems on partnering behaviour and family structure is both under-theorised and under-researched. Informed by retrospective, narrative interviews with 51 mothers living in Merseyside who were currently or had formerly claimed UK means-tested benefits or tax credits as a lone parent in the period between 1997 and 2013, and supplemented by interviews and focus groups with family support, housing and welfare rights workers, this thesis contributes towards filling the gaps in knowledge and evidence. Exploratory in nature, the research investigated whether and to what extent eligibility for or entitlement to means-tested welfare may have influenced a mother’s decision to live with or apart from a partner or child’s father, broadening the debate beyond the political rhetoric of ‘couple penalties’ and ‘welfare dependency’ to include consideration of two neglected aspects of UK welfare, the ‘cohabitation’ or ‘Living Together as a Married Couple’ (LTAMC) rule and the closely aligned system of family means testing. Based on an administrative definition of cohabitation as ‘marriage-like’ and contested assumptions about economic dependency, income pooling and financial support obligations in couples, these rules have important gendered effects which offer alternative explanations for why some low-income mothers may be reluctant to partner or feel constrained to live apart, or present themselves as living apart, from a partner or child’s father. By looking dynamically at how individual agency interacts with the structure of welfare from the perspective of the mothers themselves, the research contributes to both to empirical knowledge and theoretical understanding of partnering behaviour, changing family structures and alternative living arrangements in the context of welfare receipt.
Date of Award1 Jun 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorSusan Harkness (Supervisor)


  • Welfare and family structure
  • Welfare and gender
  • Social security and gender
  • Welfare and partnering behaviour

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