We examine the influence of individual characteristics and targeted and universal social policy on single-mother poverty with a multilevel analysis across 18 affluent Western democracies. Although single mothers are disproportionately poor in all countries, there is even more cross-national variation in single-mother poverty than in poverty among the overall population. By far, the United States has the highest rate of poverty among single mothers among affluent democracies. The analyses show that single-mother poverty is a function of the household’s employment, education, and age composition, and the presence of other adults in the household. Beyond individual characteristics, social policy exerts substantial influence on single-mother poverty. We find that two measures of universal social policy significantly reduce single-mother poverty. However, one measure of targeted social policy does not have significant effects, and another measure is significantly negative only when controlling for universal social policy. Moreover, the effects of universal social policy are larger. Additional analyses show that universal social policy does not have counterproductive consequences in terms of family structure or employment, while the results are less clear for targeted social policy. Although debates often focus on altering the behavior or characteristics of single mothers, welfare universalism could be an even more effective anti-poverty strategy.
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We code couples using the variable “married,” which includes married and nonmarried cohabiting couples (including same-sex couples). Unfortunately, the LIS does not provide sufficient information to identify the mother of the children. So, our sample includes other 18- to 54-year-old women residing in the household. We address this problem by controlling for other adults and multiple earners in the household and by estimating the models on lone mothers. Although Rainwater and Smeeding (2004:109–110) defined single-mother households simply as female-headed households with children present, we employ an even more stringent definition by including only those not married or cohabiting.
DPI includes disposable cash and noncash income after taxes and transfers (including food stamps; housing allowances; and tax credits, such as the EITC).
The categories are (a) less than secondary (low), (b) secondary or some tertiary (medium), and (c) completed tertiary or more (high). Unfortunately, the LIS does not provide sufficient detail to code vocational/technical secondary education.
In analyses available upon request, we variously add head of household’s age-squared, age of the respondent, and dummy variables for the respondent or head being under age 25. The results are consistent.
Slightly more than one-third of the sample has a child under 5, and the average single-mother household has 1.7 children (see Table 1). We define targeted benefits for a mother with a child under 3 because this maximizes the value of targeted benefits, giving this measure the best chance of being consequential (i.e., countries usually give greater benefits for young children). One could construct alternative single-mother entitlement rates for various numbers and ages of children; however, it is difficult to reduce these to one estimate per country.
For the United States, this is the mean benefit of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) across states. One could include the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. However, we were unable to identify any cross-national source on means-tested in-kind benefits. We did not include food stamps and/or housing assistance because those are means-tested for all and not targeted for single mothers. Adding in-kind benefits in the United States would only raise the already above-average single-mother entitlement and thus would lead to an even less significant effect (cf. Tables 2 and 3).
We use the term “nonemployed” to make clear that we do not include unemployment benefits here. Although a nonemployed single mother might qualify for unemployment benefits, this is not a benefit targeted at single mothers. (It is targeted at the unemployed.) Moreover, many single mothers have not been previously employed long enough to qualify for unemployment insurance.
“Total government assistance” sums social insurance, social assistance transfers, alimony, and child support. To equivalize this measure, we divide by the square root of household members. We tested several derivations of this measure, and the results are robust (e.g., concentrating on social assistance targeted to low-income households and adding or subtracting social insurance, alimony/child support, child/family benefits, unemployment compensation, and maternity/family leave benefits). We present the comprehensive measure because there is often targeting implicit in what are statutorily considered universal programs.
Yet another alternative would measure the mean total government assistance received by single mothers (in each country standardized over the median) that is not received by the general population. This “absolute” measure of targeted benefits would be the difference between what the target group and general population receive. In analyses available upon request, this produces results nearly identical to the targeting ratio.
In analyses available upon request, we substitute each of these indicators as well some alternatives (e.g., family assistance as percentage of GDP). The results are consistent. Also, there is no evidence of significant interaction effects of our welfare state measures with welfare regimes or of regime main effects.
We also include the Ns for each country. Please note that a few countries have samples of fewer than 200 cases. For these (e.g., the Netherlands), the mean level of single-mother poverty should be read with caution.
The single-mother entitlement is calculated as a percent of median equivalized household income, and poverty is defined as less than 50% of median equivalized household income. Thus, France is the only country with a value higher than 50%.
For both Italy and Spain, the single-mother entitlement is 0. Both provide family assistance only as a supplement to employment earnings. For example, a single mother in Italy is eligible for family assistance if she is employed, the only wage earner in the family, and low-income. As explained in the Methods section, this measure assumes nonemployment, following the argument that this benefit is solely for being a mother with young children.
Even though unemployment was significant in Models 1 and 2, both economic context variables would be insignificant if included, and the other results would be consistent.
These models are intentionally parsimonious, including only a few individual-level controls. The results are not sensitive to the inclusion of other individual-level controls. Although we include both social policy measures in the same models, the results are robust if modeled separately. The first four are multilevel logit models, and the last is a multilevel Poisson model.
Although not shown, the welfare state index would be negatively signed and insignificant, and the single-mother entitlement would be positively signed and insignificant. As shown in Table 6, the universal replacement rate is negatively signed and insignificant for lone motherhood as well.
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We thank Demography reviewers, guest editor Suzanne Bianchi, editor Stewart Tolnay, as well as Liz Ananat, Lane Destro, Andrew Fullerton, Bob Jackson, Stephanie Moller, Jennifer Moren Cross, Stephen Morgan, Emilia Niskanen, and David Reingold for assistance and suggestions.
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Targeting, Universalism, and Single-Mother Poverty: A Multilevel Analysis Across 18 Affluent Democracies David Brady and Rebekah Burroway (DOCX 76 kb)
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Brady, D., Burroway, R. Targeting, Universalism, and Single-Mother Poverty: A Multilevel Analysis Across 18 Affluent Democracies. Demography 49, 719–746 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-012-0094-z
- Single motherhood
- Social policy
- Welfare state