The Happiness of Single Mothers: Evidence from the General Social Survey

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Abstract

A vast “single mothers’ well-being” literature exists but has not studied single mothers’ subjective well-being (SWB). This shortcoming is important since it has been shown that there are potentially large slippages between economic indicators and SWB. Using repeated cross-sectional data from the General Social Survey 1972–2008, we examine single mothers’ happiness in the US both in absolute terms and relative to other groups: all respondents who are not single mothers, all female respondents who are not single mothers, single childless women, and married mothers. In levels, we find a significant single-mother happiness deficit compared to other groups. This deficit is explained by being single, with the happiness of single mothers statistically indistinguishable from single women without children. Over time, however, the deficit has shrunk relative to all other groups except married mothers. We discuss possible explanations for our findings, including: changes to social welfare programs, increased labor force participation, compositional shifts in single motherhood, and stigma. Our findings are most consistent with compositional shifts and changes in the stigma associated with being a single mother.

We would like to thank the anonymous referees for their helpful comments. John Ifcher and Homa Zarghamee have contributed equally to this work.