Issue, No.5 (March 2018)

Triple bind of single-parent families

by Rense Nieuwenhuis, Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI), Stockholm University and Laurie C. Maldonado, The Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality at the Graduate Center, City University of New York

The new book, The triple bind of single-parent families, is about how single parents face a triple bind of inadequate resources, employment, and policies, which in combination make it difficult for single parents to provide for themselves and their families. Edited by Rense Nieuwenhuis and Laurie C. Maldonado, The triple bind of single-parent families brings together international experts who contribute their latest research on single parenthood, inequality, and social policy across 40 countries. Here, we describe the framework of the book, feature chapters that used the LIS and LWS databases, and highlight the book’s overall lessons to improve the wellbeing of single-parent families.

Thanks to the support of Knowledge Unlatched, the Triple bind of single-parent families is available as open access. The book can be downloaded for free.

Triple Bind

The concept of the Triple Bind aims to explain disadvantages in the well-being of single parents and their children. It combines perspectives on single parents’ resources, their employment, and social policies, in all aspects emphasizing how single parenthood is strongly gendered. Single-parent families tend to have fewer resources than families with two parents, in relation to the absence of a partner living in the household and for instance as single parents are more likely to have a low level of education. To further complicate their situation, many single parents experience inadequate employment as labor markets are increasingly precarious and unequal. Unemployment, low paid jobs, and nonstandard working hours are particularly difficult for single parents to negotiate with only one potential earner and caregiver in the household. Furthermore, to add even more complexity, many (family) policies are based on gendered assumptions, such as very long periods of parental leave for mothers. Levels of minimum income protection are falling below the poverty level in many countries. Consequently, many countries fail to provide adequate social policies – a safety net that prevents single parents and their children from poverty. The triple bind accounts for the interplay of adequate resources, employment, and policy – and how they interact to support the wellbeing of single-parent families.

Featured LIS/LWS data

LIS and other high quality cross-national databases are indispensable to assess the triple bind; which aims to examine the interplay of individual resources, labor market institutions, and social policies. The introduction uses the LIS database to be able to show trends in the prevalence, and employment, and poverty of single parents across 24 countries covering nearly four decades. Here, we feature four more chapters using the LIS and LWS data.

Juho Härkönen (Chapter 2) used the LIS database to show that the poverty risk of lower-educated single parents varies substantially across 15 countries, pointing to more contextual explanations than just inadequate resources. Indeed, lower-educated parents were more likely to be single than coupled parents; however, this ‘educational gradient’ in single parenthood was shown to contribute little to the explanation of single parents’ poverty risks. Eva Sierminska (Chapter 3) used the LWS database to analyze the wealth portfolio of single parents, showing the substantial gap between single and coupled parents’ wealth accumulation. The chapter stresses the importance of home ownership for single parents. Young-Hwan Byun (Chapter 10) used the LIS database to assess what it takes for single parents to earn a middle-class income. He examined 18 countries over time. His findings suggest that single parents are more likely to earn middle-class income in countries with strong union coverage and paid parental leave. Single parents were less likely to be poor, but also less likely to earn a middle-class income in countries with high rates of female labor force participation. Ann Morissens (Chapter 16) used LIS database to assess the universal and targeting policy design of family benefits. These findings suggest that countries that use targeting within universalism to be most effective in reducing poverty among single parents.

Lessons from the Triple Bind

1) Inequality matters for single parents’ wellbeing. Single parents and their children tend to face greater risks of poverty and deprivation compared to coupled parents. Yet, it matters a great deal where one is a single parent, with these poverty risks being greater in more unequal countries with fewer supportive policies. These poverty risks were found to be consequential, as across countries single parents’ resources (including poverty, material deprivation, and education) could account for the disadvantaged well-being of themselves and their children to a considerable extent – in some cases even fully.

2) Policies that benefit all families matter for single-parent families. Studies on single parents often focus on policies that are targeted at single parenthood, such as child support. Notwithstanding the relevance of such specific policies, numerous studies in this book show that policies aimed at the general population of all families can be just as effective in support single parents’ wellbeing.

3) Gender, involved fathers and support for shared parenting matter. The gendered nature of single parenthood is often underexplored in solutions to support single parents and their children. Yet, two Swedish case studies suggest the importance of doing so. Gender-neutral and well-paid parental leave to both parents succeeds in encouraging fathers to take leave. Even in couples who separated in the first year after childbirth, fathers on average take around 70 days of leave before their child’s eighth birthday. Swedish children in shared residence, spending equal amounts of time with both parents, report levels of wellbeing that are the same as children whose parents did not separate.

4) Investments in employment matter to support inclusive societies. Policy makers often turn to employment as a means to prevent poverty and to improve wellbeing. This book shows that employment is indeed associated with positive outcomes among single parents, that extended beyond poverty reduction. Yet, only when properly supported by employment protection – including active labor market policies and work-family reconciliation policies – did being employed live up to its full potential to improve wellbeing for single parents.

5) Reasons for concern remain, and they matter. Even among many working single parents, transfer incomes make up a sizeable share of their disposable household incomes. Despite effective measures to support the employment of single parents, supplemental transfer income remains important. Especially in times of high wage inequality and precarious employment. Yet, levels of minimum income protection are falling, partially in response to decreasing minimum wages to maintain work incentives. Taken together, increasing labor market inequality not only challenges working single parents, but also those outside the labor market.

Families are becoming more diverse, and policies addressing their needs are growing more complex. Yet, the main findings in this new book The triple bind of single-parent families show that policies that reduce gender inequality (such as childcare, moderate durations of well-paid leave) and class inequality (such as active labor market policies, generous redistribution) are also effective in supporting single parents and their children. Indeed, taking a very broad perspective, we conclude that single parents do better in societies with institutions that support equality of gender and equality of class. Just like everyone else.

Nieuwenhuis, R., & Maldonado, L. C. (Eds.). (2018). The triple bind of single-parent families: resources, employment and policies to improve wellbeing. Bristol: Policy Press.