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Doing Better for Single-Parent Families: Poverty and Policy across 45 Countries


Single parents disproportionately face a triple bind of inadequacies in resources, employment, and policy which combined together further complicate the lives of single parents and their families (Nieuwenhuis & Maldonado, forthcoming). Single parents’ resources, their socio-economic background - as well as having only one earner and carer in the household - make it difficult to provide for their families. The majority of single parents are mothers and work in full-time employment, yet for many their employment is inadequate. Single parents are often in jobs with low wages, without employment protections, and with little flexibility to balance work and family responsibilities. Policy such as an inadequate cash transfers, unaffordable child care, unpaid parental leave, or lacking safety net can fail to protect families from poverty. The focus of these analyses is on policy and how it can address the triple bind and reduce poverty for single-parent families. In particular, how child support and advance maintenance, taxes and transfers, family transfers, maternity leave, leave shared between parents, leave to care for a sick child, rest days, annual leave, and sick leave reduce poverty for single-parent and coupled-parent families. The study examined 373,032 households with children in 45 countries, using household-level data from the Luxembourg Income Study database and country-level policy indicators from The WORLD Policy Analysis Center. The findings show that the US has the highest rate of single-parent families in poverty of all countries. Decomposition analyses show that child support, especially in countries that pay an advance maintenance if the other parent does not pay, reduces poverty for single-parent families; however, the effectiveness varies across countries and over time. Decomposition analyses show that redistribution, particularly family transfers, have reduced poverty for all families. Most countries cut their poverty by half or more, but some countries are more effective than others. Ireland and UK reduce poverty substantially with family transfers. The Nordic countries have lower poverty to begin with but still cut their poverty by more than half. Multilevel policy analyses found the strongest policy effect to be maternity leave. Paid maternity leave significantly reduced poverty for single-parent families only, by effectively facilitating the employment of single mothers. This is an important finding as it expands earlier work (Maldonado & Nieuwenhuis, 2015) that found paid leave to reduce poverty for single-parent families in 18 countries to 45 countries. This model did not find evidence to support the findings of the previous study that maternity leave was significant for all families. Results that leave shared between parents increased the poverty risk of single parents over coupled parents were not substantiated, unless there was a bonus for fathers to share leave. Paid leave to care for a sick child for both parents increases the poverty risk of single-parent families over coupled-parent families. Working regulations, rest leave, modestly reduced poverty for families. Family benefit schemes may increase the risk of single-parent families in poverty over couple-parent families, however the decomposition analyses show that family benefit actually received decreases poverty for all, especially single-parent families.

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