Does claiming welfare benefit by single mothers benefit their children’s mental health?

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In this post Dr Liming Li, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at King’s College London, shares about her recent research into welfare benefits, single mothers and the impact on children’s mental health.


For singles mothers in need, claiming welfare benefit is expected to be helpful in easing their financial burden in the short-term. In the longer-term the mothers may also be incentivised to seek employment, which further enhances their financial circumstances, networks and sense of identity.

In reality, these hopes may fall flat if the mothers cannot make ends meet, even with the welfare benefit (which is often modest), because material worries may ‘get under the skin’ and compromise physical or mental health. Poor health can hinder both the prospects and experience of working.  Single mothers with young children may struggle even more, as they may not be able to afford the costs of childcare when they want to be out looking for jobs.

These dilemmas facing single mothers have become more pressing since November 2008, when the UK government made it compulsory that receiving welfare benefits (which were called ‘Income Support’ (IS) at that time) had to be accompanied by active efforts of job-seeking. ‘Active’ efforts could include registering with recruitment agencies, writing a CV or spending a specified numbers of hours each week looking for jobs.

Work coaches from job centres would assess the extent to which these efforts were made by the single mothers. Mothers failing to meet these requirements would face punishment, ranging from formal warnings to suspension of welfare benefits.

While this ‘new’ policy took into account personal circumstances, such as health and home responsibilities, the levels of specific support to the mothers were reported to be generally low. Many single mothers were therefore living with constant distress because of the regular and rigorous scrutiny due to welfare receipt, which is also called ‘welfare conditionality’.

With this new policy in place, gone were the days when single mothers in benefit receipt could ‘voluntarily’ seek employment, before their children turned 16 years of age. Under the policy change in 2008 – the Lone Parent Obligation (LPO) policy, single mothers receiving benefits needed to actively seek employment once their youngest child turned 12 years of age. The age threshold for IS eligibility was further reduced to age seven (October 2010), five (May 2012), and three (April 2017).

Did the LPO reform benefit single mothers and their children? Beyond the initial policy assumptions and broad statistics on employment rates changes, research suggests that these kinds of welfare-to-work reforms may have negative effects on mothers’ health and children’s cognitive and physical development.

Theoretical models show that adolescents’ socioemotional development can be affected by changes in family income, their mother’s mental wellbeing, the opportunity costs of time, parenting practices and work-family conflicts (see Thomson et al., Conger et al., Coleman and George for examples).

However, to date few studies have examined the impact of welfare-to-work reforms on child and adolescent socio-emotional development. Understanding these questions are important given that over three million families with children (15%) are single parent families, among which nine out of ten are headed by single mothers. And yet, we know relatively little about the consequences of these reforms on families and children.

Our study

Our study aimed to address a key question – does claiming welfare benefits by single mothers benefit their children’s mental health? We analysed data for over 11,000 children and adolescents from the UK Millennium Cohort Study (2004-2018). We examined changes in mental health for adolescent children from single mother families compared to mental health changes for adolescent children from two-parent families.

Our strategy (difference-in-differences) had two key components: In the first part, we calculated ‘changes’ of mental health before and after the policy for children from single mother families. Capturing ‘changes’ in the pre-post policy period, rather than just looking at post-policy outcome, helps us exclude impact of child characteristics (that do not change along with time) on mental health. In the second part, we calculated ‘changes’ of mental health for a comparison group – children from two-parent families. This is to map out potential influences of social context and time periods on children’s mental health, as the comparison group shared similar social contexts and time but had no exposure to the policy. In this way, we obtained a ‘net’ effect of the policy on children’s mental health.

Children’s mental health was measured using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaires (SDQ), a widely used psychological adjustment measurement for children aged three to 17. The SDQ scores include assessments on children’s internalising behaviour (i.e., emotional symptoms and peer problems) and externalising behaviour (i.e., hyperactivity and conduct problems) development. We also included measures for mother’s employment, physical and mental health, household income, risks of poverty, housing tenure, childcare time, in addition to child and family demographic characteristics.

Our main finding is that the LPO reform increased lone mother’s employment and income, but this failed to translate into improvements in mental health for their adolescent children. The reform did not reduce the risk of family poverty and it contributed to mothers’ psychological distress. Mothers also reported that time with their children was insufficient, and many rated themselves ‘low’ in terms of their health.

Our study is among the first to investigate the intergenerational impact of lone parent employment policies on adolescents’ socioemotional development. Previous studies have focused on the impact of mothers’ employment on very young children. Our study is unique as it examines how a policy reform that incentivises mothers’ employment impacts adolescents. Although we found the negative effects on adolescents to be relatively small, our study offers a mixed picture of the benefits of welfare-to-work programmes on families and questions the assumption that these schemes improve the developmental outcomes of young children and adolescents.


These findings call for government policymakers to assess the overall impacts of welfare-to-work programmes, including the potential intergenerational consequences on child and adolescent socioemotional development. A common assumption underlying welfare-to-work programmes is that incentivising welfare benefit claimants to work will lead to positive changes in their life circumstances (e.g., income, sense of purpose, networks), which also add to their children’s wellbeing (e.g., lowering risks of poverty).

It is worth highlighting though, that children do not ‘automatically’ benefit from parents’ improved circumstances (from unemployment to employment, increased income), if these changes come at a cost (e.g., maternal stress, inadequate parenting time). Recognising the influences of home environment on children while their parents are making the transitions from benefit receipt to employment is of paramount importance.

While policymakers seem to be increasingly aware of ‘linked lives’ within households, the reported policy efforts often centre on increasing flexibility in job research hours to facilitate childcare arrangement. These initiatives to mitigate work-family conflicts are generally welcomed by single parents, but doubts remain on the level of support granted.

Flexibility in job researching hours is only a small aspect of the barriers facing single parents. The psychological stress of job searching or moving on to low quality jobs (e.g., low-pay, poor working conditions, instable) may magnify the challenges of parenting. The fact that we observe compromised developmental outcomes among adolescent children, a group often less demanding in childcare hours comparing to younger children, highlights the importance in improving welfare conditionality packages to improve family wellbeing.

Future studies that capture aspects of parent-child interactions in more nuanced ways may better illustrate how single parents’ transition from welfare benefit receipt to employment influence their children. Experience from other countries may also be instrumental in advancing our understandings of how to design welfare conditionality in ways that maximises family wellbeing.

The research presented in this blog post is based on Liming’s recent publication which can be viewed online

About the author

Dr Liming Li is currently a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, based at the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine, King’s College London. She is also an Affiliated Lecturer at the Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge. Liming’s research focuses on how social policies shape people’s life chances and contribute to outcomes of inequalities. Her topics of interests include ageing, mental health, education, work and employment, family and child development.

Liming currently works on a British Academy funded project ‘Understanding the impact of higher education expansion policy on women’s empowerment’. This project examines the impact of policies that expanded women’s access to higher education on their sense of empowerment, using quantitative (quasi-experimental) and qualitative methods.

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