Social policy research often focuses on the here-and-now. In the area of social security research that might include studies of current benefit recipients, how they enter and leave benefits, how they are treated by the system, and what gaps or problems can be identified. There are some large-scale surveys that follow the same people over extended time periods and provide a rich source of data on longer-term situations and outcomes. They tell us, for example, that receipt of state benefits includes a range of circumstances: some people with just one short spell, others in a cycle of moving in and out of work and benefits, and some receiving support for several years. But it is still rare to have data on these experiences over time, on how people manage, how they live their lives, and what this means for themselves and their families.
In my research with Tess Ridge we did just that. We started with 50 lone-mother families in 2001/2 and collected four rounds of in-depth interviews over about 15 years. The final round of interviews was in 2016 and that report, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, explores issues of work, income, family and welfare . We covered years of significant policy change, from a time of expansion of provision for families with children to a time of contraction and austerity. We were particularly interested in whether, and how, the women could sustain paid work over time, and what this meant for their incomes and living standards.
At first, we were seeing lots of change in the lives of the women. Getting into work was not a simple linear process, rather for many of the women this was extended over time, and involved lots of changes of jobs, or of working arrangements (for example, in hours, days or workplaces). Sometimes it was the work itself that was unstable, and sometimes it was the women who were trying to find the best fit between their work and their family lives. There was a lot of short-term change and uncertainty.
But over the longer-time period it was continuity rather than change that was most striking. The women had mainly stayed in work, and some had increased their earnings and moved into more senior jobs. But many were still on wages at, or not much above, the national minimum wage. And this meant that their incomes had stayed much at the same level, or had fallen when for example child benefit and child tax credit ended as children grew up and left home. This had major implications for their futures, as retirement was coming closer, and for their capacity to help and support their children into adulthood. Thus, while there may be a lot of change and churn over the short term, there is often limited capacity for people to sustain a significant and lasting improvement in income and material circumstances over longer periods of time.
The children had also initially experienced a lot of change, in their daily lives and arrangements for childcare, and in the time spent with other family members. They were mostly in their early to mid-twenties by our final interviews, and still experiencing lots of short-term change, in living arrangements, in work/study, and in partnerships and parenthood. These changes were often challenging to manage and while the mothers and other family members helped, family resources were often limited. The impact of cuts in state support for families and young people, under the austerity agenda, was very apparent.
But how can such data be useful for policy? This sort of qualitative data can sometimes be viewed with a degree of suspicion. How can the experiences of a relatively small number of people be relevant to policy-makers dealing with large schemes and mass systems? The contribution of this type of in-depth research is less about trends and more about lived experience. It is the depth and detail of in-depth narratives that can illuminate policy in ways that survey data cannot. Over the years of the research we have been involved in putting evidence to a wide range of individuals and groups engaged in the policy process, including civil servants, politicians and third sector organisations. We found that the use of case studies – accounts drawn from the individual participants – was a strong and effective way to summarise and present the complexities of experiences, circumstances, and choices. The case studies gave a narrative structure that could capture the imagination and enable connections to be made. As we presented the research, we often had follow-up conversations with audience members who spoke to us about being a lone parent or growing up in a lone-parent family and recognising the accounts – ‘that was me’.
However, the selection of case studies must be a rigorous process, it requires careful and clear justification, in order to convince that these are a valid representation of the data. The rationale for the case selection needs to be both transparent and purposive. Case studies also need to be placed in context of other research, both qualitative and quantitative, in order to build up a coherent and systematic picture.
Our research over time meant we could deepen our understanding of the relationships between social and economic conditions, policy, and everyday lives. We saw how family relationships reflected complex and subtle dynamics. The mothers were very committed to providing for their children and giving them a good start in life, but they did not always have the resources to protect or support their children into young adulthood. For the children the impact of financial insecurity in childhood could cast long shadows. Lone-mother families are still a group with a high risk of poverty, including in-work poverty, and our research underlines the need for systems that can provide families with income security and adequacy.
About the author
Jane Millar is Professor of Social Policy at the University of Bath.