## Issue, No.5 (March 2018)

### Doing better for single-parent families, the US compared to 45 countries

by Laurie C. Maldonado, The Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality at the Graduate Center, City University of New York

The debate as to whether single-parent families are the cause or consequence of poverty and inequality is widespread. In the United States, it is often a topic of conversation and heated debate at the dinner table. Jason DeParle (2012) wrote in the New York Times an article titled “Two Classes in America, Divided by ‘I Do’” suggesting that above else, the cause of poverty is the result of women’s poor choices of selecting a partner. That inequality between single-and coupled-parent families has much to do with the individual choices of single parents. In response, Bryce Covert (2013) wrote in Forbes magazine an article titled “Bad Relationships Don’t Stand in Poor Women’s Way. Bad Policies Do”. Covert argued, “The problem isn’t who single mothers decide to date. It’s the way the US government fails to support them”. She argued for the US to learn from other countries and how their social policies support single-parent families. Recently (2018), David Brady, Ryan Finnigan, and Sabine Hübgen, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Single mothers are not the problem”. Their article also supports this position. Their study, used the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) data, finds that the prevalence of single mothers has little to do with poverty and more to do with a lack of generous policies. Generous policies, like in Denmark, address penalties and consequently these countries have much lower poverty rates.

This brief also uses the LIS data to examine single-parent families and policies that reduce poverty across countries. It’s part of my dissertation titled “Doing Better for Single-Parent Families, Poverty and Policy in 45 Countries” (Maldonado, 2017; please refer to this monograph for more details, methods, and rationale). This short piece will: 1) describe poverty rates of single-parent families across countries and over time, 2) analyze the impact of taxes and transfers on reducing poverty, 3) summarize the findings of socio-demographic characteristics and parental leave policy on reducing poverty in a multi-level model, and 4) provide suggestions for how the US can do better for single-parent families.

##### Descriptive results

In 45 countries, about 1 in 5 families are single-parent families. Single-parent households are defined as having one adult living with his/her child(ren) under the age of 18. Other adults can reside in the same household, such as grandparents, but not partners. Prevalence of single-parent families has been increasing over time for the majority of countries. The majority of single parents are mothers and many are working. Even in countries with lower overall employment rates, the average employment rate for single parents is still high at 66 percent. Even though the majority of single parents are employed–because they have no other choice but to work– their families remain at great risk for poverty.

The United States has the highest percentage, 36 percent, of single-parent families in poverty of all countries. More than 1 in 3 single-parent families is poor in the US. Not only does the US stand out as the “Worst-Off” for single parents in high-income countries (Casey and Maldonado, 2012) but it deserves this same deployable title among many middle-income countries as well; including South Africa, China, Panama, and Brazil. At the 50 percent threshold, the US along with South Africa, Japan, Canada, Germany, Israel, Luxembourg, Spain, China, Panama, and Brazil– have poverty rates above 25 percent. Denmark, on the other hand, has much lower poverty rates, 7 percent of single-parent families were poor.