Riitta Kyllönen
The Social Construction of Lone Mothers. A Case Study of the Welfare Service in Venice

Arbeitsbereich I; 29
ISSN: 0948-0072

This paper examines how the welfare services of the municipality of Venice deal with lone-mother clients in a welfare system that has no provisions specifically for lone mothers. The analysis is based on interviews with six social workers operating in different districts of the city. The paper interprets discursive and ideological dimensions of social policies, highlighting the mechanisms by which the welfare programs and practices define the needs of lone mothers. It outlines the dynamics of negotiation in the welfare services, which try to reconcile the legislative and administrative norms with the social workers' professional practices and the lone mothers' claims.
The analysis rejects the commonplace view that social welfare beneficiaries are exclusively people in 'extreme discomfort', and presents two biographical pathways through which lone mothers turn to welfare services. The social workers' image of the two subcultures of lone mothers influences their attitudes and the strategies they set in motion for lone mothers.
Despite the Veneto region's universal law on social assistance, access to economic support is determined more selectively through proving a 'qualifying need'. Interpreting lone mothers' claims as qualifying needs along psycho-social and educational dimensions serves to transform their expressed claims into claims that can be dealt with institutionally. Social workers prefer to supply 'professional' psycho-social support for lone mothers, using their major discretion in that area. They explicitly aim at helping mothers to recover their resources so that they are able to maintain themselves and their children through paid work. Lone mothers seem to acquire a specific position among users of welfare services, as social workers perceive their problems as more complex and sound than those of other users. Therefore lone mothers are provided with a broader range of discretionary support. Social workers' discretion in supporting lone mothers in maternity and in accommodating paid employment and family compensates for the gaps left by national and local welfare policies.