The Concept

Single-parent families face much higher poverty risks than two-parent families, and their poverty varies across OECD countries. Previous research mainly focused on the poverty-reducing role of social policies that provide financial transfers to these families. The current study simultaneously analyses single parents’ employment, paid parental leave facilitating their employment, and family allowances.

The Outcome

Parental leave – if it is paid – helps with reducing poverty among single-parent families, because it facilitates their employment. However, even when employed many single parents face poverty. Family allowances are important in further reducing their poverty.

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Family allowances reduced single-parent poverty by up to 13 percentage points.

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In the USA more than 35% of single parents are poor

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Less than 10% of single parents were poor in Sweden (2005) and Denmark

Number of weeks of paid leave for young mothers in the United States (federal legislation)

A factual abstract

Using data from the Luxembourg Income Study Database, this study was able to study the poverty risk of single-parent and two-parent households. In total, we covered 519,825 households in 18 OECD countries from 1978 to 2008. Single-parent households face substantially higher risks of poverty than two-parent households. Single mothers are more at risk than single fathers. We examined how these poverty risks vary across OECD countries. The poverty risk of single parents was found to be particularly high in the United States and Canada, and much lower in the Nordic countries. Their poverty risk has been increasing in (for instance) Finland and France, and decreasing in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Next, we examined to what extent these country-differences could be explained based on the family policies in these countries. It was found that parental leave – if it is paid – helps with reducing poverty among single-parent families, because it facilitates their employment. Employment was associated with substantially lower poverty risks of single parents, particularly for parents in professional occupations and those who could work longer hours. Nevertheless, even among the employed, many single parents remained in poverty. Further analyses, using an income decomposition, indicated that family allowances reduce poverty among two-parent households with up to 3 percentage points, and among single-parent households up to 13 percentage points.

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Useful readings

Van Lancker et al.

Int J Social Welfare (2014)

Research paper

Gornick & Jäntti

Children Youth Serv Rev (2012)

Research paper

Nieuwenhuis & Maldonado

Belgian Rev Social Security (2015)

Research paper

The story behind the paper

Our collaboration started off in New York, during our weekly meetings in which we debated each other’s research. Often over a midday cup of chai tea latte, downtown New York City. NYC is the home of The Luxembourg Income Study Center at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (LIS Center), where Rense Nieuwenhuis served as a visiting scholar and Laurie C. Maldonado is currently a predoctoral scholar.

Nieuwenhuis had just published his first article, in the Journal of Marriage and Family, which showed that while work-family reconciliation policies facilitate maternal employment across 18 OECD countries from 1975 to 1999, family allowances formed a disincentive for maternal employment. This article is now part of a completed dissertation on Family Policy Outcomes. Maldonado co-authored her first piece on Worst Off – Single-Parent Families in the United States. In this report, she had debunked the myth that single parent families in the United States are poor because they are not employed. Instead, they are poor being employed in low wage jobs, and it is the redistribution through social assistance that is failing single parents in the U.S.

Discussing our findings, over the aforementioned chai latte, our separate research interests of family policies and single-parent families converged. Nieuwenhuis insisted on the importance of looking at (family) policies that stimulate employment together with policies that provide financial support. Maldonado challenged Nieuwenhuis for his emphasis on coupled households: “It certainly is interesting that your paper found family allowances as a disincentive to women’s employment, but doesn’t this mainly capture women in coupled households? What about single mothers? Would you expect family policies to differently affect the outcomes of single- and two-parent families?” Those questions are now answered in our joint publication.

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The complete publication should be cited as:



Family policies and single parent poverty in 18 OECD countries, 1978–2008

Laurie C. Maldonadoa*, Rense Nieuwenhuisb

Community, Work & Family, Volume 18, Issue 4 (2015) 395-415

DOI: 10.1080/13668803.2015.1080661

Laurie C. Maldonado
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Laurie C. Maldonado

Doctoral candidate

Laurie C. Maldonado is a doctoral candidate in Social Welfare at UCLA and is a predoctoral scholar at LIS (Luxembourg Income Study). She is the recipient of the PhD grant awarded by the Fonds National Recherche de la Luxembourg, which supports her research that examines the consequences of social policy on the lives of single parents and their families in the U.S. and across countries. Laurie co- authored, with Tim Casey from Legal Momentum, “Worst Off: Single-Parent Families in the United States: A Cross-National Comparison of Single-Parenthood in the U.S. and Sixteen Other High-Income Countries”. The report received media attention in the U.S., including, among others, coverage in The Nation (Greg Kaufmann, blog), by Bill Moyers, in the New York Times (Nancy Folbre, blog), by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, in Forbes (Bryce Covert, blog), on the radio station WBAI (an Esther Armah interview), and on the television Al Jazeera International English (Kimberly Halkett Inside Story interview). Laurie holds an MSW and practiced social work with single-parent families.

Maldonado’s Researchgate profile

Rense Nieuwenhuis
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Rense Nieuwenhuis

Assistant professor

Rense Nieuwenhuis is an assistant professor at the Swedish Institute for Social Research (Stockholm University), and a research fellow at the Linneaus Center on Social Policy and Family Dynamics in Europe (SPaDE, at Stockholm University). He is interested in how the interplay between social policy developments and demographic trends produces economic inequalities. He is a quantitative sociologist, and almost all of his studies are country-comparative in nature. Recently, he has main focused on family policies and active labor market policies in relation to trends in motherhood, educational expansion, and single parenthood. Outcomes of interest were gender differences in employment, poverty, and income inequality.

Nieuwenhuis’ publications appeared in Community, Work & Family, Journal of Marriage and Family and the European Sociological Review, among other journals. In 2014 he obtained his PhD (Cum Laude) from the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

Nieuwenhuis’ Researchgate profile

Nieuwenhuis’ Blog page

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