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Single-Parent Families

Economics Of Single-parent Family Life

The most profound effect of divorce is economic deprivation for mother-only families. For example, in the United States, the custodial mother's and children's standard of living is reduced by 30 percent on average while the noncustodial father's standard of living increases by 15 percent (Hoffman and Duncan 1988). The typical pattern for both middle-class and working-class newly divorced mothers in Western societies is to move into inadequate apartments in undesirable neighborhoods due to the scarcity of affordable housing that will accommodate children (Wekerle 1985). The result is that they often leave their social networks and sources of support at the same time that they are forced to enter the labor force or increase their working hours. For single parents the housing/employment issue is one of affordability and geographic proximity and access to jobs that pay a living wage (Mulroy 1995). In addition, teenage mothers face economic adversity with the interruption of their education. As teen mothers move into adulthood they often remain unskilled, unemployed, and unemployable (Sidel 1998).

Child support, money paid by the noncustodial parent to the custodial parent toward the support of the children, does not offset the economic deprivation experienced by single-parent families. Since mothers retain custody in the majority of cases, fathers are typically ordered to pay child support. However, award levels have consistently accounted for less than half of the expense of supporting a child, representing about 10 percent of the noncustodial father's income. According to one study, a father's child support payments average less than his car payments (Pearce 1990). Despite recent U.S. legislation (Family Support Acts of 1988 and 1994), many fathers do not pay court-ordered child support payments. In 1997, 68 percent of custodial mothers with children under the age of eighteen received full (42%) or partial (27%) child support payments, leaving a third without any payment. The average amount received by U.S. mothers in 1997 was $3,700, an increase of $400 from 1994. Women below the poverty level are the least likely to be awarded or to receive child support. Black and Hispanic mothers are even less likely to be awarded support or to benefit from payments (Rodgers 1996).

When the situation is reversed and custody is granted to the father, mothers are ordered to pay lower child support awards since fathers tend to have higher incomes. Mothers still pay an average of $3,300 to custodial U.S. fathers, although only one-third pay in full. Compared to noncustodial mothers who do not pay support, mothers who pay support earn a higher income, have more regular visitation with their children, are consulted more by the fathers, and have more positive feelings about their arrangement (Greif 1986).

The economics of single-parent family life mean that single mothers are disproportionately represented among the poor. Among U.S. households headed by single mothers in 1998, one-third lived below the poverty line, compared to 12 percent of male-headed families. In 1999, 42 percent of children living in female-headed families were poor, compared to 18 percent in male-headed families, and 8 percent in couple-headed families. Overall, women with dependent children comprise two-thirds of the poor population, a phenomenon referred to as the "feminization of poverty." This is especially pronounced for African-American and Hispanic women who head families, with 43 and 51 percent, respectively, living below the poverty line, compared to 31 percent of white mothers who head families. African-American (14.7%) and Hispanic (16.8%) single fathers are also more likely to be living below the poverty line than their white male counterparts (10.8%).

Around the world women make up the majority (70%) of the 1.3 billion people who live in poverty. The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (1996) estimates that women constitute almost 60 percent of the world's population, perform two-thirds of all working hours, receive only one-tenth of the world's income, and own less than 1 percent of the world's wealth. The poverty of families headed by women can be attributed to the fact that women's roles are primarily domestic (mother, homemaker), undervalued, and unpaid. In addition, when women work for wages they make significantly less than their male counterparts. Even full-time employment does not guarantee financial security, given the structure of the labor force, the lower wages paid in female-dominated occupations, and the lower human capital investment of single mothers (education, training, and work experience). However, even when controlling for education and work place experience, women earn less than men, a global pattern that holds true across all racial and ethnic groups throughout the occupations. In the developed world, the United States and Canada have the highest wage gap (75%) and the Scandinavian countries have the lowest (80% to 94%).

Gender differences in earnings are exacerbated by race; in 1995, the median income for full-time year-round work in the United States was $22,900 for white women, $20,700 for African-American women, and $17,200 for Hispanic women. Whereas the majority of single mothers worked for wages in 1997 (79%), one-third were employed part-time or part-year only. Single fathers, on the other hand, were more likely to be working full-time (77%), with only 17 percent working part-time or part-year. In addition, single mothers are more likely than other employees to experience layoffs, they receive fewer fringe benefits, and they pay higher expenses for childcare (Kinnear 1999). In developing countries, families are often disrupted as parents leave home to find work. For example, Filipina women regularly migrate to Hong Kong to work as domestics on multiple-year contracts managed by the government. They leave their children in the Philippines and send money for their support since the wages earned in Hong Kong ($325 month) exceed what they could earn at home ($125 month).

The income of mothers heading families, supplemented by child support and transfer payments, is used to support the family. In the United States child support and alimony together account for about 10 percent of the total income of white mothers and for about 3.5 percent of the income of African-American mothers. However, alimony or spousal support is awarded in less than 15 percent of all divorce cases, is received in less than 7 percent, and has been virtually eliminated in marriages ending in fewer than five years (Weitzman 1985).

Another source of support essential to the ability of single parents to manage the demands of work and home is child care. A disruption in child-care arrangements can be stressful for any family in which both parents work; for the single-parent family, it can create an immediate crisis. Single mothers report that childcare is one of the most difficult obstacles in their efforts to provide for their families through paid employment (Kamerman and Kahn 1988). European and Scandinavian countries are ahead of the United States in developing government subsidized comprehensive childcare programs. France and Sweden, in particular, provide a model of supporting working mothers, with resulting low rates of poverty among mother-only families, along with modest levels of public dependency (Garfinkle and McLanahan 1994). Japan also provides high-quality, affordable day care for working mothers; poor families receive the service free (Rodgers 1996).


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesSingle-Parent Families - Demographic Trends, Mother-only And Father-only Families, Challenges Of Single-parenting