The increase in unmarried parenthood in the U.S. remains a genuine concern for children’s well-being and for intergenerational mobility. Unmarried parents in the U.S. are much more likely to be poor than their married counterparts. Single parents juggling many competing priorities work more, earn less, and have less time or fewer resources to devote to advancing their own education. But does this ongoing increase in unmarried parenthood consign the country to continuously increasing inequality? Not necessarily.
The problem of poor children in single-parent families is a problem of poverty much more than it is one of family structure. A generation of research shows that the primary source of trouble in these families is low income. Too often these families lack the material resources necessary to provide a secure and stable environment for their children. Additional challenges, such as low parental involvement or supervision, largely result from time poverty—another consequence of low income for the parents in poor families.
Still, there is no denying that single-parent families have high poverty rates. Wouldn’t policies aimed at altering the long-term trend in family structure be a sure-fire way to reduce poverty?
Under this assumption, the federal government – working with some zealous states – has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over nearly a decade attempting to promote marriage among the poor. So sure were the proponents of this policy that it would solve the problem that they paid for it with money from the federal welfare program. The result was no measureable increase in marriage rates – or in, more importantly, well-being – among the targeted groups. Further, the 1996 welfare reform, which shortened welfare eligibility periods and increased other program requirements, was specifically intended to discourage single parenthood and encourage marriage. Although it increased employment among single mothers with limited education, it did nothing to change the direction of the family structure trend.
This experience in failed policies and decades of cultural exhortation and shaming intended to prevent single parenting, combined with evidence that poverty itself is harmful to the future well-being of children, should be enough to show that reducing poverty, rather than changing family structure, is the more rational approach to improving children’s lives.
The persistent poverty gap between single-parent and married-parent families illustrates just how pervasive the problem of poverty is. Of all the challenges single-parent families face, poverty need not be one of them. A recent paper in the journal Demography, by David Brady and Rebekah Burroway, analyzed the relative poverty of single mothers versus the total population, after accounting for taxes and government transfers, in 18 countries. Not only does the U.S. have the highest poverty rate for single mothers among these countries – 41 percent – but we also have a very large difference in poverty rates between single-mother families and the population overall (see figure below). In countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and even Italy, single mothers are hardly more likely to be poor than everyone else. In the U.S. the gap is 24 percentage points, a huge penalty for single motherhood.
Based on their analysis, Brady and Burroway argue that universal anti-poverty programs, rather than those targeted directly at single mothers, appear to hold the most promise. In the context of the American political climate, that provides an important insight. As economic inequality has risen on our political and policy radar, the social stigma for single mothers remains strong. Policy directed toward supporting (seen by opponents as “rewarding”) single-mother families seems unlikely to gain favor among today’s political leaders. On the other hand, universalist policies such as living-wage laws, publicly supported universal preschool education, and universal health care, may fare better.
Regardless, an approach that favors reducing poverty broadly – with the side-effect of trimming the single-mother penalty – likely would be far more effective in improving child well-being than efforts to counsel or coerce low-income people into marriage.