Decent wages and generous social supports to
reconcile work and parenting add up to a family policy that's
smarter than marriage promotion.
by Karen Christopher
The American Prospect magazine, April 8, 2002
The belief that motherhood is the preeminent cause of poverty
in America has become a bipartisan cliché. The welfare
reform enacted in 1996 was designed, among other things, to discourage
single parenthood and to promote marriage. Yet a look at the experiences
and policies of other nations suggests a more complex story behind
the causes of and cure for poverty. Evidence from Europe shows
that the remedy is to increase the economic resources available
to low-income families-through better-paying jobs that relieve
poverty directly and social supports that reconcile paid employment
with reliable parenting.
U.S. women, men, and children experience significantly higher
levels of economic hardship than their counterparts in other affluent
Western nations. For example, a common cross-national measure
of poverty considers households poor when their family income
falls below 50 percent of their country's median income. By this
measure, according to the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS), in the
mid-1990s more than 45 percent of U.S. single mothers were poor;
by comparison, single mothers' poverty rates were 13 percent in
France and around 5 percent in Sweden and Finland. Overall, U.S.
women's poverty rates were 15 percent-about 4 to 5 percentage
points higher than those of Canadian, Australian, and British
women, 8 to 9 percentage points higher than in France or the Netherlands,
and 12 to 13 percentage points higher than in Sweden and Finland.
Because single mothers have higher poverty rates compared
with other women, a higher percentage of single motherhood, all
else being equal, would raise poverty rates among women generally.
Yet recent research using the LIS shows that even if U.S. women
had extremely low rates of single motherhood, their poverty rates
would still be higher than those of women in other affluent Western
nations. Marriage, therefore, is no panacea. Rather, the high
poverty rate of U.S. women is due to two main factors: the prevalence
of poverty-wage jobs and the failure of the government's welfare
programs to pull its citizens out of poverty.
As the table on page 61 shows, compared with their Western
counterparts, U.S. women and single mothers are among the most
likely to earn poverty-level wages. When working full-time (at
least 35 hours a week), about one-third of U.S. women and more
than 40 percent of U.S. single mothers earn wages too low to free
their families from poverty. In other Western nations, particularly
Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, working full
time pulls the vast majority of women (including single mothers)
and their families above the poverty line.
SOCIAL TRANSFERS AND EMPLOYMENT SUPPORTS
But wages are only part of the story. In many countries, citizens
receive generous subsidies from the government to help pay the
costs of raising children and to protect workers from labor market
vicissitudes. The United States is notorious for its paltry welfare
state, which is by far the least effective among industrialized
democracies in reducing poverty rates. In the mid-1990s, the U.S.
system of social transfers and tax credits reduced women's poverty
rates by about 15 percent, while comparable welfare programs in
other affluent Western nations reduced women's poverty by anywhere
from 40 percent (in Canada) to 88 percent (in Sweden).
Although the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is increasingly
effective in reducing poverty among low-income families in this
country, total social-assistance payments in the United States
have decreased over time. The main social-aid program for single
parents, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), provides
monthly payments that often fail to cover even the cost of rent
and utilities. In 2000 the majority of states provided maximum
payments between $50 and S150 per month for a family of three.
IIf the United States is to take seriously the task of reducing
economic hardship among single-parent families, we must stop focusing
on marriage and instead rethink our existing labor-market and
welfare-state programs. Other affluent nations provide us with
several viable alternatives.
The countries most successful in reducing poverty among single
mothers encourage them to pool income from a variety of sources.
Examples of various "policy packages" that accomplish
this include employment supports, such as child care, that provide
single mothers with access to paid work; welfare benefits, such
as child allowances, that all parents receive; and cash and near-cash
subsidies. U.S. welfare policy gives lip service to the goal of
enabling mothers to work but often fails to provide the supports
to do it properly.
Employment supports like subsidized child care are essential
in increasing mothers' employment rates. Research by social scientists
Janet Gornick, Marcia Meyers, and Katherin Ross shows that countries
with more-comprehensive childcare and paid-leave programs significantly
increase the employment of mothers with young children. In Sweden
and France, 80 percent to 95 percent of children ages three to
five are in publicly supported day care. In sharp contrast, only
14 percent of U.S. children in the same age group are in publicly
subsidized child care. The U.S. figure is more than :5 percentage
points lower than any European nation. The lack of affordable
child care is an important reason why the majority of U.S. mothers
reduce their work hours after having children-particularly while
their children are young. This difficulty in sustaining full-time
employment, in turn, contributes to their low income.
Paid-leave policies are also important in raising single mothers'
income, for two reasons: They provide a source of income for mothers
caring for newborns and they keep mothers attached to the labor
force. Again, the United States is a laggard. The U.S. Family
and Medical Leave Act offers 1z weeks of unpaid leave to women
who work in companies with more than 50 employees. Other affluent
nations provide at least 1: weeks of paid leave, with most granting
closer to 20 weeks. Some nations, like Finland and Sweden, allow
up to almost one year of paid leave, at 80 percent to go percent
of one's former wage rate.
BEYOND POVERTY WAGES
In addition to making employment more accessible for mothers,
other affluent nations truly "make work pay." Among
the stark differences between the United States and other industrialized
nations (particularly Scandinavian nations) are the stronger presence
of social-democratic parties and a much higher rate of unionization
in the latter countries-two factors that foster more-egalitarian
wage structures than exist in the United States. (As the table
indicates, the wages of single mothers employed full time in other
industrialized nations more often prove sufficient to pull families
out of poverty than they do in this country.)
It should not be surprising, then, that Finnish and Swedish
single mothers have the highest employment rates and lowest poverty
rates worldwide. Yet it is not only employment that keeps their
poverty rates low: Single mothers in these nations receive benefits
that other parents and workers get, such as child allowances and
guaranteed pensions later in life. They also receive child-support
payments from the government when absent fathers cannot or do
not pay them.
Contrary to the warnings of opponents, there is no evidence
that such policies per se increase out-of-wedlock births. For
one, single motherhood in the United States has grown in the past
few decades, while social-assistance payments to single mothers
declined. So it seems that social assistance alone does not increase
single motherhood. In addition, European countries with the most
generous social programs for single mothers (such as the Netherlands)
have high rates of children growing up in families with two parents.
It is important to note that in some European countries with
generous welfare states, such as the Nordic countries and France,
parents increasingly cohabit as singles rather than get married.
While such cohabiting relationships are generally less stable
than marriages, social scientists Lawrence Lu and Barbara Wolfe
note that the dissolution of such unions is much less common in
Europe than in the United States. So in the most generous welfare
states found in Northern Europe, most children grow up with two
parents-though many form long-term cohabiting unions rather than
In addition, like all their fellow citizens, mothers in the
most generous European welfare states qualify for social assistance
if their incomes fall below a certain level. But according to
Diane Sainsbury, an expert on cross-national social policies for
women, most single mothers in Sweden and Finland support themselves
via employment and universal social programs, so there is little
need for social assistance programs explicitly targeted toward
them. When welfare states make it easier for mothers to combine
parenting and paid work, the vast majority of mothers also choose
to work for pay.
Many U.S. social scientists who point to marriage's benefits
for children also acknowledge the importance of income and other
social supports. In their book Growing Up with a Single Parent:
What Helps, What Hurts, Sara McLanahan and Irwin Garfinkel show
that, on average, children of single-parent households do indeed
fare worse than children of two-parent households on a host of
issues, such as high school and college dropout rates. But they
add that single parent families typically have low income, which
accounts for "a substantial portion" of the differences
between children of single- and two-parent families.
WHAT CAN THE UNITED STATES LEARN?
Though the United States is not likely to adopt the employment
and welfare policies that exist in other nations we could modify
our government's current social policy to substantially reduce
economic disadvantage among single mother families.
First, single mothers need more access to subsidized or low-cost
child care. Low-income families spend as much as 35 percent of
their incomes on child care-much more than higher-income families.
In an article published in the Prospect ["Support for Working
Families," January 1-15, 2001], Janet Gornick and Marcia
Meyers suggest that if the United States were to spend the same
share of gross domestic product on subsidized child care and paid
leave as France does, we would need to increase expenditures by
at most $85 billion yearly. This seems a huge outlay, but it is
only about 3 percent of President George W. Bush's recently proposed
$2.1 trillion budget for 2002 and far less than the annual cost
of his tax cut. States could also bear part of this cost: Given
the precipitous declines in welfare caseloads over the past few
years, some states have redirected leftover funds to child-care
programs, and many more could do so. Further, paid-leave policies
are currently on the agenda in many states.
The fact remains, however, that increasing employment rates
of single mothers is not enough to ensure their families' escape
from poverty. As President Bush emphasized in his State of the
Union Address, "good jobs" are essential. But most single
mothers in our country have bad jobs. According to a 2000 report
by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the median
income of people leaving welfare is between $8,000 and $12,000
a year. Recent research by Pamela Loprest of the Urban Institute
shows that only 23 percent of those who leave welfare have health
care provided by their employer. [For a comprehensive discussion
of welfare reauthorization and suggestions for future policy directions,
including the EITC and child-support policies, see Jared Bernstein
and Mark Greenberg, "Reforming Welfare Reform," TAP,
January 1-15, 2001.] Clearly, low-income single mothers need better
Gornick's cross-national research on labor-market inequality
finds that U.S. women earn low wages largely because of the U.S.
wage structure's inequality. She suggests that employment policies
that could help women are those that could help all low-income
workers: increases in minimum wages, higher rates of unionization
and other institutional wage-setting mechanisms, and increased
regulation of the international-trade policies that are pushing
wages downward. While opponents claim that wage increases will
lead to job losses, the Economic Policy Institute reports that
neither the 1990-1991 nor the 1996-1997 minimum-wage increases
resulted in significant job losses. Macroeconomic factors were
far more important influences on the unemployment rate.
Such policies are also attractive because they are universal:
All parents or all citizens could receive them. Politically, universal
policies generate broad constituencies rather than leaving the
poor isolated, because voters generally support policies that
benefit them. However, this does not mean that we should dismantle
social-assistance programs targeted toward single mothers. A recent
study by the Urban Institute found that about one-third of mothers
on welfare have children with chronic health or developmental
problems. It will be difficult for many of these women to work
outside the home, and low-income single mothers should not be
impoverished while tending to caregiving responsibilities in the
Overall, we need pollicy packages that make it easier for
all parents to combine caregiving with employment-or when employment
is untenable, that provide economic support for caregiving. Funding
these policies would, of course, require reallocating government
taxing and spending, such as a rejection of the tax-cut extensions
recently enacted by the Bush camp (with the support of some Democrats).
But providing single mothers with policy packages that allow more
of them to be employed, and at better jobs, will reduce spending
on means-tested social assistance.
Most important, comprehensive policy packages for single mothers
could vastly reduce economic hardship among children. In the United
States, growing up in a single-parent family can significantly
reduce children's life chances. But experience in other industrialized
nations shows that it doesn't have to be this way. To advocate
marriage as the panacea for low-income families' economic problems
is to avoid the real reasons why so many U.S. mothers and their
children are poor: bad jobs, an inequitable wage structure, and
a shoddy welfare state. If we truly want "no child left behind"
in this country, we must back our political rhetoric with policy
packages that address the true sources of economic disadvantage
among single-parent families.
KAREN CHRISTOPHER, an assistant professor of sociology at
the University of Pittsburgh.