As the potential for more children being raised by single parents increases, so does the societal need to examine this phenomena of single parent earnings and the impact it will have on the ability to support a family above the poverty line. Research suggests a substantial pay gap between men and women, but most research is limited to individuals in traditional families. This study explores income disparity and poverty between single mothers and single fathers across three decades (1990–2010), using a US nationally representative sample. Based on human capital theory, our analysis reveals that single mothers were more likely to be in poverty at far greater rates than single fathers, after controlling for a host of demographic, human capital, and work related variables. We also found that a contributing factor to this disparity is that single mothers were penalized for having more children while single fathers were not. We find that gendered poverty and the gender pay gap narrowed between 1990 and 2000, but have stayed stable since. Overall, human capital decreases the gender income and poverty gap, but a substantial gap still remains. Implications for policy-makers are discussed.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
American Community Survey. (2014). Homepage of the American Community Survey. US Bureau of the Census; Washington, DC. [March 27, 2015]. http://www.census.gov/acs/www/
Barr, M. S. (2009). Financial services, saving, and borrowing among low- and moderate-income households: Evidence from the Detroit area household financial services survey. In R. M. Blank & M. S. Barr (Eds.), The insufficient funds: Savings, assets, credit, and banking among low-income households (pp. 66–96). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
Bauer, J. W., Braun, B., & Olson, P. D. (2000). Welfare to well-being framework for research, education, and outreach. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 34(1), 62–81.
Bauer, J. W., & Dolan, E. M. (2011). Theories for studying rural families and work. In J. W. Bauer & E. M. Dolan (Eds.), Rural families and work: Context and problems (pp. 17–35). New York, NY: Springer.
Bauman, K. J. (2002). Welfare, work and material hardship in single parent and other households. Journal of Poverty, 6(1), 21–40.
Becker, G. S. (1992). Human capital and the economy. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 136(1), 85–92.
Becker, G. S. (1993). Human capital a theoretical and empirical analysis with special reference to education (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bhave, D. P., Kramer, A., & Glomb, T. G. (2012). Pay satisfaction and work-family conflict across time. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 34(5), 698–713.
Blau, F. D., & Kahn, L. M. (1992). The gender earning gap: Learning from international comparisons. The American Economic Review, 82(2), 533–538.
Bowen, G. L., Desimone, L. M., & McKay, J. K. (1995). Poverty and the single mother family: A macroeconomic perspective. Marriage and Family Review, 20(1–2), 115–142.
Bryant, W. K. (1992). Human capital, time use, and other family behavior. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 13(4), 395–405.
Bumpass, L. L., & Raley, R. K. (1995). Redefining single parent families: Cohabitation and changing family reality. Demography, 32(1), 97–109.
Christopher, K. (2002). Single motherhood, employment, or social assistance: Why are US women poorer than women in other affluent nations? Journal of Poverty, 6(2), 61–80.
Christopher, K. (2005). A ‘pauperization of motherhood’? Single motherhood and women’s poverty over time. Journal of Poverty, 9(3), 1–23.
CONSAD Research Corporation. (2009). An analysis of the reasons for the disparity in wages between men and women. Prepared for the US Department of Labor, Employment Standards Administration. Contract Number GS-23F-025.
Douthitt, R. A. (2000). “Time to do the chores?” Factoring home-production needs into measures of poverty. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 21(1), 7–22.
Douthitt, R. A., & Huh, K. (1994). Expenditures on children by female-headed households. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 15(2), 75–91.
Duncan, G. J., & Rodgers, W. (1987). Single parent families: Are their economic problems transitory or persistent? Family Planning Perspectives, 19(4), 171–178.
Eggebeen, D., Snyder, T., & Manning, W. D. (1996). Children in single father families in demographic perspective. Journal of Family Issues, 17(4), 441–465.
Ellwood, D. T., & Jencks, C. (2004). The spread of single parent families in the United States since 1960. Unpublished manuscript, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Fields, J. (2003). Children’s living arrangements and characteristics: March 2002. http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/p20-547.pdf. Accessed March 27, 2015.
Fields, J., & Casper, L. M. (2001). America’s families and living arrangements: March 2000. Current Population Reports, P20-537. Washington, DC: US Census Bureau.
Friedman, B., Ying, S., & Wartell, S. R. (2012). Savings: The poor can save, too. Democracy, 26, 30–35.
Garasky, S., & Meyer, D. (1996). Reconsidering the increase in father-only families. Demography, 33(3), 385–393.
Grall, T. (2013). Custodial mothers and fathers and their child support: 2011. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p60-246.pdf. Accessed March 27, 2015.
Hawkins, D. N., Amato, P. R., & King, V. (2006). Parent-adolescent involvement: The relative influence of parent gender and residence. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68(1), 125–136.
Herd, P. (2005). Reforming a breadwinner welfare state: Gender, race, class, and social security reform. Social Forces, 83(4), 1365–1394.
Himmelweit, S., Bergmann, B., Green, K., & Albelda, R. (2004). Dialogue lone mothers: What is to be done? Feminist Economics, 10(2), 237–264.
Hogan, D. P., Hao, L. X., & Parish, W. L. (1990). Race, kin networks, and assistance to mother-headed families. Social Forces, 68(3), 797–812.
Hollander, D. (1996). Nonmarital childbearing in the United States: A government report. Family Planning Perspective, 28(1), 29–41.
Hong, P. Y. P., & Pandey, S. (2008). Differential effects of human capital on the poor and near-poor: Evidence of social exclusion. Journal of Poverty, 12(4), 456–480.
Karlin, C., England, P., & Richardson, M. (2002). Why do “Women’s Jobs” have low pay for their educational level? Gender Issues, 20(4), 3–22.
Kramer, K. Z., Kelly, E. L., & McCulloch, J. B. (2013). Stay-at-home fathers: Definition and characteristics based on 34 years of CPS data. Journal of Family Issues. doi:10.1177/0192513X13502479.
Kramer, K. Z., & Kramer, A. (2015). The rise of stay-at-home father families in the US: The role of gender ideology, human capital, and economic downturns. Working paper, University of Illinois.
Laux, S. C., & Cook, C. C. (1994). Female-headed households in nonmetropolitan areas: Housing and demographic characteristics. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 15(4), 301–316.
Lievens, F., Sanchez, J. I., Bartram, D., & Brown, A. (2010). Lack of consensus among competency ratings of the same occupation: Noise or substance? Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(3), 562–571.
Lino, M. (1995). The economics of single parenthood: Past research and future directions. Marriage and Family Review, 20(1–2), 99–114.
Livingston, G. (2013). The rise of single fathers: A ninefold increase since 1960. Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/07/02/the-rise-of-single-fathers/. Accessed March 23, 2014.
Manchester, C. F., Leslie, L. M., & Kramer, A. (2013). Is the clock still ticking? An evaluation of the consequences of stopping the tenure clock. Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 66(1), 1–25.
Mendenhall, R., Kramer, K. Z., & Akresh, I. R. (2014). Asset accumulation and housing cost burden: Pathways to (not) saving. Housing Policy Debate, 24(2), 387–414.
Meyer, D. R., & Garasky, S. (1993). Custodial fathers: Myths, realities, and child support policy. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 55(1), 73–89.
Ruggles, S., Sobek, M., Alexander, T., Fitch, C. A., Goeken, R., Hall, P. K., et al. (2004). Integrated public use microdata series: Version 3.0 [machine-readable database]. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Population Center.
Setterfield, M. (2013). Wages, demand and us macroeconomic travails: Diagnosis and prognosis (pp. 158–184). After the Great Recession: The Struggle for Economic Recovery and Growth.
Seccombe, K. (2000). Families in poverty in the 1990s: Trends, causes, consequences, and lessons learned. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62(4), 1094–1113.
US Census Bureau. (2006). Income, poverty, and health coverage in the United States: 2006. http://www.census.gov/prod/2007pubs/p60-233.pdf. Accessed March 27, 2015.
US Census Bureau. (1997). Children with single parents—How they fare. http://www.census.gov/prod/3/97pubs/cb-9701.pdf. Accessed March 27, 2015.
US Census Bureau (2009). America’s families and living arrangements: 2009. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2009.html. Accessed March 27, 2015.
Vespa, J., Lewis, J. M., & Kreider, R. M. (2013). America’s families and living arrangements: 2012. Population characteristics. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p20-570.pdf. Accessed March 27, 2015.
Zhan, M., & Pandey, S. (2004). Economic well-being of single mothers: Work first or post-secondary education? Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 31(3), 87–112.
This study is dedicated to the memory of Jean W. Bauer, a professor in the Department of Family Social Science, University of Minnesota, a beloved mentor to graduate students and colleagues. This work was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Hatch project MIN-52–07.
Deceased: Jean W. Bauer
About this article
Cite this article
Kramer, K.Z., Myhra, L.L., Zuiker, V.S. et al. Comparison of Poverty and Income Disparity of Single Mothers and Fathers Across Three Decades: 1990–2010. Gend. Issues 33, 22–41 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12147-015-9144-3
- Single fathers
- Single mothers
- Single parent households/families