How many hours should parents be expected to work?
How many hours should parents be expected to work in order not to be poor? New research published last week by Child Poverty Action Group explores this tricky question.
Round the clock: In work poverty and the ‘hours question’ recognises from the outset that there are multiple factors which shape parents’ decisions about how many hours to work. Personal preferences, gender and cultural norms and financial considerations all play a role. But the report also shows that the pressures to work more hours bear down harder on low-paid parents than on the better-off. Critically, those on low pay have to engage with a benefits system rife with sharp messages about the ‘right’ number of working hours.
The report sets out to establish prevailing norms about the number of hours parents should work, and then consider their implications for policy. In the first instance, over 4,000 respondents were polled for their views on the ‘hours question’. The results make for interesting reading, with a vast range of opinion existing about what constitutes a reasonable number of working hours. Moreover, views are widely dispersed throughout the population: men did not think differently on the question than women, older people no differently than younger people, and Conservatives no differently than Labour supporters.
These results were then probed further through focus groups with parents. Across the board, parents were generous in respecting others’ work-family choices: in truth, most struggled to say how many hours anyone else ‘should’ be expected to work. For some, what constitutes a reasonable number of working hours is in part contingent on external factors such as suitable jobs, good childcare provision and the like. But for most, the bottom line is that parents know best, and that it is their assessment of what is a reasonable level of work which should prevail.
The focus groups also explored the question of whether we should expect those on lower pay to work longer hours than those on higher salaries. The resounding answer was ‘no’: low-paid parents should be able to make similar choices about work-family balance as those lucky enough to command a higher wage. As one participant put it, expecting anything else was simply ‘not fair!’.
Finally, the report assesses the attitudes of employers to the hours question through a series of interviews. While most wanted to accommodate parents’ needs for specific working hours as far as possible, in truth they are more likely to do this for more highly valued employees. Low paid parents are often doubly discriminated against then: they are more likely to be on casual or short-hours contracts that have fewer formal rights attached (such as the right to request flexible working), and their preferences are less likely to be accommodated by their employer as they are not seen as important enough to the business to retain.
What, then, are the implications of all this for policy?
First, it is clear that expecting low paid parents simply to work more and more hours in order to escape poverty jars with broad public sentiment. Instead, tackling low pay and providing adequate social security support must remain a large part of any credible strategy to tackle in-work poverty.
Second, policies which facilitate parental employment – perhaps most obviously improved childcare provision – have an essential role to play in enabling parents to work a reasonable number of hours.
But third, interventions which compel rather than enable parents to work – such as the more intense conditionality regime being introduced with universal credit – sit very uncomfortably with most.
Finally, the research has implications not just for policy but perhaps also for the way we campaign to help low-paid families. As one reviewer of the research perceptively put it, people answered the ‘hours question’ as parents first and tax payers second. All in all, this suggests that appealing to the common concerns most have about the well-being of their and others’ children may be one way to cut through the overweening ‘us-and-them’ narrative we have all had to listen to for far too long.