To Prevent Poverty, Reduce the Penalty for Single-Motherhood

I wrote an essay for Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. It originally appeared on their site, here, and I reproduce it below with their permission. 

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.

5 thoughts on “To Prevent Poverty, Reduce the Penalty for Single-Motherhood

  1. What about policies supporting/recognizing/requiring the father taking half the responsibility for unpaid work of care of the child? Right now, our federal policies are all built around a sole breadwinner and define women as the only biological and psychological parents of children and the only ones responsible for meeting their needs (except for some financial collection from the father). The federal policies do this to the point of running counter to basic biology. The ACA preventive care provisions do this, for example.

    A “rights of the child” concept that assigns responsibility to both parents equally to meet a basic standard of both financial and nonfinancial needs of the child would be a good thing I think. Parents can still contract for some other arrangement but if there is a failure to meet the standard of meeting the child’s needs, the state then steps in and holds the parents liable.


  2. I have written this in several other comments; out of all the nations for comparison, only the UK is a comparable nation in having a large number of women of color as single parents; of children (41.503 million white 11.272 million black 2.629 milion Asian, and 16.347 million Hispanic), approximately (20%, 56%, 10%, 29%) are in single mother families; of which (33%, 48%, 30% and 49%) are in poverty. Whereas I agree with the view that poverty leads to single mother phenomena and not single mother->poverty, as you have argued, I still feel the issues are unique to the US, and the existence of what appears to be three separate and unequal nations with different incidences of single parenthood and percentage of single parent families.

    When they argue that single mother-led families in other democracies do not exceed the poverty percentages of other poor families, they are comparing apples and apples. The US is (racial differences +poverty) amplified nonlinearly. I know what I am going to say will be vigorously shouted down, but the three unequal nations of the US have different cognitive abilities, and different economical paths.

    The solution suggested above is the most stunning, and meaningless. “Brady and Burroway argue that universal anti-poverty programs, rather than those targeted directly at single mothers, appear to hold the most promise.” Okay what about the great society, welfare, unemployment, Section 8, Medicaid, food stamps, school lunch? Are they suggesting another program that will provide dollars to all the poor people? I am OK with an additional source of income targeting all the poor, but just not clear why another program will magically lift all single mother-led families out of poverty.


  3. Having a child is a self selection mechanism, and a potent one at that. I agree that getting low income people to marry accomplishes nothing. But how do people with and without children compare? Ie would policies that enable family planning (like the ACA) have an impact on inequality?


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