Vulnerability of lone parents: social policy support makes all the difference
Dr. Ornella Larenza

Vulnerability of lone parents: social policy support makes all the difference

In her thesis entitled "Social policy shaping the life-course: A study on lone parents' vulnerability", Dr Ornella Larenza demonstrates that access to social policies is vital to prevent lone parents from finding themselves in situations of vulnerability.

Lone parents often experience a deterioration in their health, as well as their financial situation. Observing this reality, Dr Ornella Larenza devoted her thesis – which she successfully presented on 3 May 2019 – to studying the growing diversity of lone parents. She also investigated how social policies can play a part in increasing their vulnerability throughout their life course.

The impact of unpaid child maintenance on other aspects of life

Dr Larenza concentrated her research on two specific areas of social policy: payment of child maintenance, and receipt of state welfare benefits.

With regard to the first of these, she showed that the legal framework governing the execution of child support obligations is only of limited assistance to mothers confronted with breaches of parental obligations towards their children. Furthermore, not all mothers react to such breaches, since they are placed in a moral dilemma with regard to the other parent and that person's relationship with the children. Some mothers ultimately adapt to total non-compliance by the other parent by changing their career path, which has repercussions for other areas of their lives. For example, some mothers increase their working hours, but this compels them to take time away from their children and give up the relationship with them that they truly wish for.

With regard to the second, the researcher illustrated how lone parents respond when faced with difficulties accessing state benefits (e.g. by seeking alternative sources of financial support from friends and family, by fighting the authorities which prevent them from receiving benefits, or by adapting their life course to the conditions imposed on access to benefits) and how these circumstances may not only affect their financial situation, but also bring about a more complex set of changes in several areas of their lives, including consequences for their relationship with their partner and their role as a parent.

A combination of analytical methods to achieve a global perspective on the life course

On behalf of the panel*, Prof. Eva Green, Vice-Dean at the University of Lausanne, also congratulated Ms Larenza for her "innovative approach which cuts across different domains of social policy, and for the rigour of the study's qualitative longitudinal analysis".

Dr Larenza conducted a case study combining cross-sectional (synchronic) and longitudinal (diachronic) qualitative analyses. This study allowed her to show that the vulnerability of lone parents is a process, and that the way it develops depends simultaneously on the ingredients it contains (stress factors and resources available to the individual) and how these are arranged over time. Therefore, it is not merely necessary to consider negative consequences, but also to take into account a more complex dynamic between stress factors and resources.

Social policies may play a part in this vulnerability process as ingredients helping to form complex constellations of problems. In particular, they may take on the role of stress factors where a lone parent finds the support structure is absent or hard to access, or that support is inadequate. They may in the end shape the vulnerability process for lone parents, and generate repercussions in several areas of their lives and over the course of time.

Finally, the study shows that the degree of agency (capacity to react) of lone parents experiencing vulnerability reflects the configuration of the ingredients in the process, and that this agency may be significantly oriented by their relationships with important people such as their children, former partner and family of origin. This capacity to react particularly depends on the parent's ability to access resources and to mobilise these in order to overcome stress factors.

* Members of the panel: Prof. Eva Green, Vice-Dean (Chair); Prof. Laura Bernardi, Institute of Social Sciences (thesis supervisor); Ms Claire Bidart, Research Director at the University of Aix-Marseille CNRS (National Centre of Scientific Research); Prof. Giuliano Bonoli, IDHEAP (Graduate School of Public Administration); Prof. Jane Millar, University of Bath.