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Single mothers and income inequality: Demographic reality, an old scary trope revisited, or a little of both?

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
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on Tuesday, 24 July 2012
in CHNET-Works!

single mothers 1Photo by: Clementine Gallot,
reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0 licence
On July 15, the New York Times ran a long story on income inequality and family structure. The story led with a comparison between the lives of two women working in the same child care centre in the US Midwest. One "goes home to a trim subdivision and weekends crowded with children's events"; the other, her subordinate, pays more than half an income in rent and "scrapes by on food stamps," the federal food vouchers on which more than 46 million Americans now rely.

Veteran social policy reporter Jason DeParle's point was, superficially, one of straightforward demographics and arithmetic: the birth of children in unmarried households is becoming the norm. In a world where two paychecks are increasingly essential if a household is to do more than scrape by, especially in the lower reaches of the income distribution, that will have a powerful effect on the overall distribution of income within a society – and by extension, on the life chances of children in different categories of households. Assortative mating – the tendency of people with comparable educations and incomes to marry or at least cohabit – magnifies this demographic effect.

There is nothing new about such observations. In 1998, internationally recognized Canadian urbanist Damaris Rose pointed out that the rapid increase in the number of two-earner households was driving out-migration from the island of Montréal to suburbs where home ownership was more affordable, although her concern was not with income inequality per se but rather with effects on urban form 1.  And the 'single' (presumptively young and feckless, presumptively non-white) mother was a central trope in US welfare 'reform' debates of the 1990s. At the same time, it's hard to disregard the differences that two incomes, especially two secure incomes, make in basic life chances.

single mothers 2Photo from The story of single mothers, part of a campaign by Raise the Rates, a coalition of community groups and organizations concerned with the level of poverty and homelessness in British ColumbiaIn response to the Times article, Shawn Fremstad posted a four-part critique on the web site of the Center for Economic Policy Research, one of the United States' best regarded left-of-centre policy research units. Among the points he made, each documented with links to primary research:

More basic questions would appear to be: why and how do some societies make it so much easier than others to raise children with an adequate material standard of living, and adequate social supports? Detailed, fact-based rather than model-based comparisons of policy regimes are surprisingly hard to find, but it is worth quoting a recent book chapter based on the Luxembourg Income Study's cross-national data sets on social policy impacts: "[A]fter accounting for taxes and transfers, fewer than 5% of children in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden live in poor households," as against 15.6% in Canada and 22.2% in the United States 2. Full stop. Five percent versus 15-22%. A 2009 OECD study pointed out that while 24 percent of children in the United States lived in single parent families in 2005/06, the figure was 19 percent in Denmark and 16 percent in Norway. So something else is at work.

The same study concluded that "the empirical literature on the impact of family structure on child outcomes is at an immature stage." Based on a variety of outcome measures, it also concluded that "at a maximum ... the likely causal effect sizes of being brought up in a sole-parent family are small."

This is a complex policy field, but: a society seriously interested in equalizing opportunities to live a healthy life would start from a firm commitment to something like a 5% (or less) solution, and then work backward from there to see what policies would best achieve that goal in a specified time period, only secondarily asking questions about family structure – not least because of the long time frame needed for interventions that address family structure to have an impact, even when sound research evidence exists to support them.

Some societies are clearly more serious than others on this point. Perhaps that's why a journalist like the Times' DeParle, with a long history of questioning conventional wisdom, took the easy road of looking at family structure rather than the rocky road that runs through the effects of decades of offshoring, union-busting, attacks on social provision and tax breaks for the rich. It's a bit like the easy road taken by health promoters who profess a concern for social determinants of health, but end up talking once again about tobacco control and health literacy. Those are not unimportant, but if serious progress toward health equity is the destination, the easy roads are unlikely to get us there.

1. Rose D, Villeneuve P. Engendering Class in the Metropolitan City: Occupational Pairings and Income Disparities among Two-Earner Couples. Urban Geography, 19: 123-159.

2.  Gornick J, Markus J. Child Poverty in Upper-Income Countries: Lessons from the Luxembourg Income Study. In S Kamerman, S Phipps and A Ben-Arieh, eds., From Child Welfare to Child Well-Being (Springer Netherlands, 2010): 339-368;

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