Friday, October 25, 2013

U.S. single-parent families are the worst off

The wellbeing of single-parent families is a vitally important issue for the United States. Half or more of the children growing up in the U.S. today will spend some, and in some cases all, of their childhood in a single-parent family.

This report compares U.S. single-parent families with single-parent families in 16 other high-income countries. We find that U.S. single-parent families are the worst off. They have the highest poverty rate. They have the highest rate of no health care coverage. They face the stingiest income support system. They lack the paid-time-off-from-work entitlements that in comparison countries make it easier for single parents to balance caregiving and jobholding. They must wait longer than single parents in comparison countries for early childhood education to begin. They have a low rate of child support receipt.

U.S. single parents have both above average employment rates and above average poverty rates. High rates of low-wage employment combined with inadequate income support explain the paradox of high poverty despite high employment.

Consider the hypothetical single mother, Theresa. For simplicity sake, assume that she has only one child, Daniel. Suppose first that Theresa and Daniel live in one of the comparison countries. If employed at Daniel’s birth, Theresa would have been entitled to a period of paid parental leave ranging from 9 to 46 weeks and averaging over 20 weeks. While employed, Theresa would typically be entitled to paid sick leave and to at least four weeks of paid annual leave. Whether or not Theresa was employed, she and Daniel would be guaranteed health care coverage. Theresa would likely have access to public education for Daniel from the age of three on, even sooner in some of the countries. She would typically be entitled to a monthly child allowance benefit to help her provide for some of Daniel’s basic needs. In the majority of countries she could also be entitled to “advance maintenance” benefits if Daniel’s father neglected to pay child support or was unable to do so. If Theresa lost her job and had been employed long enough to satisfy the Unemployment Insurance (UI) employment history requirement, she would on average be entitled to up to 57 weeks of UI benefits. If she and Daniel were in financial need, she would be entitled to social assistance (“welfare”) that in the majority of comparison countries would raise family income close to or above the poverty line. Now, suppose instead that Theresa and Daniel live in the U.S. Theresa would have no entitlement under national law to paid parental leave, paid annual leave, or paid sick leave. She might be without health care coverage for herself or Daniel whether employed or not. She would be unlikely to have access to public education for Daniel until Daniel was five. She would not receive child allowance or advance maintenance, as the U.S. does not provide these programs. If Theresa lost her job, she might not qualify for UI, as single mothers in the U.S. are very often in low-wage jobs and thus less likely to qualify for UI benefits if they lose a job. If she did qualify for UI, she would typically receive benefits for a maximum of 26 weeks unless Congress renewed the temporary extensions of UI benefit weeks enacted in response to the ‘great recession.’ If Theresa and Daniel were in financial need, the family might be ineligible for social assistance because of “time limits,” or might be unable to access benefits because U.S. social assistance enrolls only a minority of eligible families. If eligible for and able to enroll in social assistance, the meager social assistance benefit would leave family income far below the poverty line.

Some highlights from the study:
  • A cross-national study of single parent employment around the year 2000 reported that 87% of employed U.S. single parents were employed 30 or more hours a week. 
  • Single mothers in the U.S. are paid much less than comparably educated single fathers or married men. A 1999 study found that if employed U.S. single mothers earned as much as comparable men, their annual earnings would increase 17% and their poverty rate would fall by half.
  • There Is An Entitlement To Paid Parental Leave In All Comparison Countries,  but not in the U.S.
  • There Are Entitlements To Paid Annual Leave, Holidays, And Sick Leave In Comparison Countries, But Not In The U.S.
  • Early Childhood Education Starts Earlier In Comparison Countries Than In The U.S.
  • Single parents need others to care for their younger children while they engage in paid work. The unavailability or unaffordability of care is often an employment barrier.
  • There Is Universal Health Care Coverage In All Comparison Countries, but not in the U.S.
  • Parents Receive Child Allowance In All Comparison Countries,  but not in the U.S.
  • Single Parents Receive Advance Maintenance In The Majority Of Comparison Countries,  but not in the U.S.
In advanced maintenance programs, also referred to as assured or guaranteed maintenance or child support, the government provides cash payments to single parents when non-custodial parents are unable or unwilling to pay child support. Typically, there is a cap on the payment amount, and the government seeks to recover the cost of the payments from the non-custodial parent. In some countries, advanced maintenance is only available to low-income single parents. Advanced maintenance aims to assures single parents a dependable minimum amount of child support.

Hardship is quite common for US single-mother families. Two-fifths of single-mother families are “food insecure,” one seventh use food pantries, and one third spend more than half their income on housing. Three quarters of homeless families are single-mother families. One fifth of single mothers live doubled up in another person’s home.

Although single parenthood is especially common in the U.S., the U.S. does less than comparison countries to assure single-parent families basic economic security, and does less than comparison countries to help single parents balance jobholding and caregiving. With the principal exception of advanced maintenance, the more beneficial policies in comparison countries are not targeted specifically to single-parent families. Rather they are policies that serve all families but which are especially important to single-parent families because single parents often are both the sole caregiver and the sole breadwinner. U.S. single-parent families will remain the worst off unless the U.S. expands its family-supporting policies.

Excerpt from "WORST OFF – SINGLE-PARENT FAMILIES IN THE UNITED STATES: A Cross-National Comparison of Single Parenthood in the U.S. and Sixteen Other High-Income Countries" By Timothy Casey and Laurie Maldonado (December 2012)

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