Poverty, single mothers and mobility

In 1994, Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur published, Growing Up With A Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps. The growth of children living with only their mothers was — then as now — a matter of concern not only for children’s well-being, but for intergenerational mobility. One of their empirical conclusions was this:

For children living with a single parent and no stepparent, income is the single most important factor in accounting for their lower well-being as compared with children living with both parents. It accounts for as much as half of their disadvantage. Low parental involvement, supervision, and aspirations and greater residential mobility account for the rest.

The biggest problem, in other words, is economic. The other factors —  involvement, supervision, aspirations, mobility — are related to social class and the time poverty that economically-poor parents experience.


Here are some bivariate illustrations — that is, head-to-head comparisons of the difference between children of poor and non-poor versus single and married parents.

These are the “skill group” rankings by teachers of children by socioeconomic status (or SES, a composite of parents’ education, occupational prestige and income) versus race/ethnicity, gender and family structure. SES shows the widest spread in reading teachers’ group placement of first graders.

Source: Condron (2007).

Similarly, the poor/nonpoor difference is greater than the two-parent/single-parent difference in kindergarten entry scores:

Source: Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (2009).

Those are just two examples from early-childhood assessments. More importantly, here is the breakdown seen in a longitudinal study of children growing up. When women grow up to be mothers, their poverty level in childhood is more important than their family structure for predicting whether they will be in poverty themselves. The poverty difference is large, the family structure difference is not:

Source: Musik & Mare (2006).

This study included a more sophisticated set of multivariate analyses than this simple graph, but the author’s conclusion fits it:

Net of the correlation between poverty and family structure within a generation, the intergenerational transmission of poverty is significantly stronger than the intergenerational transmission of family structure, and neither childhood poverty nor family structure affects the other in adulthood.

That is, childhood poverty matters more.

Fewer single parents, or less poverty?

But if single parenthood and poverty are so closely related, some people say, we should spend hundreds of millions of dollars promoting marriage to help children avoid poverty (and other problems). That’s what the government has done, with money from the welfare budget. Even if it worked, which it apparently doesn’t, it’s only one approach. What about reducing poverty? And, more specifically, reducing the relative likelihood of poverty in single-parent families versus those with married parents. That is, address the poverty gap between the two groups, rather than the size of the two groups. This has the added advantage of not singling out one group — single mothers — for social stigmatization (of the kind I mentioned here). And, because it defines the problem as economic rather than moral, may make it easier to build public support for helping the poor.

Consider a recent paper by David Brady and Rebekah Burroway, published in Demography. They analyzed the relative poverty of single mothers versus the total population — that is, what percentage had incomes below half the median (per person, after accounting for taxes and government transfers). Such a relative poverty measure is really a measure of inequality, but specifically inequality at the low end. (Regardless of how rich the rich are, it’s theoretically possible to have no one below half the median income). Here is my graph showing that result, with only the countries that have reliable sample sizes in the survey:

The Nordic countries have the lowest overall poverty rates. But in absolute terms their advantage is much bigger for single mothers. (The red line shows equal poverty rates for single mothers and the total population.) The US and UK have the largest difference in poverty rates between single mothers and overall poverty. That is, we have the largest poverty penalty for single motherhood. If the relative poverty rates for single mothers were lower in the US, we might spend more time and money addressing poverty and less trying to change family structures.

21 thoughts on “Poverty, single mothers and mobility

  1. Just this morning, I read Joe Klein’s column titled “Rick Santorum’s Inconvenient Truths” in the March 5 issue of Time magazine. One of the most disturbing parts of what is, frankly, a pretty disturbing column all around, is when Klein states: “[Santorum’s] emphasis on the importance of intact families is undoubtedly correct as well; every major study since the 1960s has shown the disaster that results from out-of-wedlock births.” Really, Joe? Here I am, five years into a sociology PhD program with a concentration in family sociology, and somehow this entire body of uncontroverted research that you speak of seems to have eluded me. Apparently the painstaking lengths that social science researchers go to to attempt to establish causality and account for the myriad other factors that potentially contribute to poorer child outcomes are for naught, because Klein and Santorum have it all figured out.

    So, Dr. Cohen, while I personally think you illustrate quite effectively the complex and nuanced relationships between family structure, poverty, and various family outcomes, you might as well forget all of that stuff that’s been borne out by the actual data; Klein knows “undoubtedly” from all of the “major studies” he has read that single parenthood has brought about “disaster,” plain and simple, and clearly Santorum is a prophet and a genius.


  2. I’ve always had a major problem with any study that looks at the socioeconomic “consequences” of living in a single mother household, and I assume that you, too, share some of these reservations. My main problem is not with selection, perse, which is a major issue when examining household structure. My main problem is that we don’t really have a good idea of what the counterfactual is when we talk about the “effect” of having a single parent household.

    If we want to know the effect of having a single parent on educational attainment, would we like to know what a kid’s education would be if he/she had two parents? Two parents in a happy marriage? Two parents without the issues that may have led to divorce? Two parents who spend equal time with the kid?

    Until we can really specify what the comparison group is, talking about the effects of single parenthood are essentially meaningless. As meaningless as talking about the effect of being an artist. Being an artist compared to what?


  3. On the subject of your assertion that “If the relative poverty rates for single mothers were lower in the US, we might spend more time and money addressing poverty and less trying to change family structures” kind of get causality for the Nordic situation backwards?

    What would seem to account for the comparatively low rates of poverty of single mothers relative to the general population in the Nordic area would seem to be the existing comparatively high level of government expenditures for childcare. Thus if the same path were followed in the US – increasing payments to single parents – wouldn’t this leave less rather than more money available to address other types of poverty?


    1. I have always thought one of the best ways to lessen poverty would be to make sure all workers are paid a living wage.
      Unlike you, I don’t see increasing payments to single parents vs spending in other areas to be dichotomous.
      Nordic countries spend more on social welfare because they believe it’s important. In the U.S., things such as quality health care, quality child care, etc. are things that are determined by one’s income. If you’re rich, you’ll get great health care and child care. If you’re poor, best of luck-it’s a cruel world out there.


  4. “That is, we have the largest poverty penalty for single motherhood. If the relative poverty rates for single mothers were lower in the US, we might spend more time and money addressing poverty and less trying to change family structures. ”

    Its strange to me that you argue that we are spending millions trying to alter family structure to favor 2 parent families.

    I would argue that the whole welfare state, including the Swedish one is precisely what makes single motherhood a possibility. Is there even a country with high rates of single motherhood that does not have a generous welfare state?

    Second single motherhood has effects beyond just educational attainment. It effects crime as well. You view this at the level of individuals but you fail to consider the negative externalities single motherhood imposes on others including generating a disproportionate number of rapists, murders and thieves.


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