Lone Parenthood in the life course

Lone Parenthood in the life course

A future challenge for social policy?

Author(s): Laura Bernardi, Ornella Larenza

Key messages:
  • Still predominantly female, lone parents are a growing, yet socially diverse group likely to re-partner within 5 to 10 years and, compared to coupled parents, with significantly higher employment rates
  • Poverty is still a major issue in lone parenthood despite more than a decade of active labour market policies, suggesting their relative failure and a need for continued training programmes combined with the provision of full-time affordable external care
  • As such higher poverty levels are strongly related to greater gender inequalities, policy measures should promote equal career opportunities with equal pay, shared parenting and measures to conciliate work/training and family

Statistically important since the 1990s, the growing phenomenon of lone parenthood is much more varied than its common and easy perception as a population composed of low-educated young mothers. Although still mostly women, lone parents are a heterogeneous social group who live alone with their children as a consequence of divorce and separation from the partner, or, to a lesser extent, as a consequence of widowhood, an unexpected pregnancy, or, more rarely, the use of modern reproductive methods. A major turning point in life, the ways in and out of lone parenthood are fluid. In most European countries, lone parents typically engage in new relationships within 5 years, although certain countries show considerably longer spells of lone parenthood, notably Switzerland (10+ years). Consequently, lone parenthood is a state that could be viewed as transitionary in marked contrast to legal definitions which boast clear-cut start and end dates. This reality should be taken into account by researchers and policy makers when considering welfare provisions. Moreover, although overrepresented in social welfare, evidence clearly shows that lone mothers are considerably more likely to work part- and full-time than partnered mothers. As a result, this suggests a relative failure of activation policies which appear unable to reduce poverty levels among lone mothers. Instead, we suggest to take into account persistent gender inequalities. As research shows, the path into poverty for lone mothers is paved by a) the ‘double burden’ of juggling between work and family with no or insufficient recourse for affordable full-time external care; b) the neglect of fathers to commit to childcare or pay maintenance; and c) gendered education and employment opportunities leading to lower wages for women despite equal qualifications.

Lone parents: a growing population group

Whenever new welfare data are released in Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe, lone parents figure prominently among the welfare users. As it is, children in one-parent families have a much higher risk of living in poverty than children in two-adult families. Similar to other countries in Europe, in Switzerland one in two children on welfare lives in a lone-parent household, most often with the mother. Yet, as shown in a recent publication edited by Bernardi and Mortelmans, it is gender inequalities that are first and foremost at the root of higher poverty levels among lone parents. Contrary to public perception, a closer look into their lives shows a growing, yet socially diverse population group with comparatively high full-time employment rates.

Across Europe and North America, the share lone-parent households has risen to up to a sixth of all households, although variations between countries are huge as data sources and definitions differ and legal, social and cultural practices vary. The highest rates may be found in the USA, UK and Russia; France, Germany, Belgium and Scandinavian countries show average rates when compared to other OECD countries, while southern and some eastern European have the lowest rates of lone-parent households.

As for Switzerland, figures range between 6 and 15 percent depending on the data source (see Milewski/Struffolino/Bernardi). These numbers may present snapshots, recording lone parents with dependent children at a given time such as in the federal Families and generations Survey, which for 2013 indicates a share of 6 percent of households led by lone parents and at least one biological child below the age of 18. Taking into account multiple generations in the same data source, the share is higher indicating that almost 13 percent of the surveyed women experienced lone parenthood between 1953 and 2013.

In and out of widowhood, divorce and lone parenthood

Given these figures, lone parenthood has become a relatively common, though transitory experience in people’s life courses. However, over the past five decades the reasons for lone parenthood have shifted: irrespective of migrant labour households which may entail extensive periods of lone parenthood, the main cause for raising children alone has shifted from the death of the spouse to the divorce and separation from the partner. In Switzerland, lone parenthood through widowhood has become marginal with divorce and separation the primary reason to live alone with dependent children. One might also add that new forms of lone parenthood are emerging centred on single mothers which have chosen to raise their child alone with pregnancy. Statistically negligible in Switzerland, this form of parenthood is more known in some Nordic countries and – associated with substantially increased levels of poverty – in the UK (see Portier-Le Cocq).

As research shows, the length of time spent as a lone parent varies considerably between countries. Along with the age with which it occurs, these may be interesting indicators for policy making. After all, the timing and the length spent alone raising dependent children matters to the finances of a household. As shown in the subsequent table based on the Harmonized Histories date file, numbers vary and may not so easily be interpreted:

Occurrences of lone parenthood and length of the first occurrence in Europe, by education and sex (age group 15–55; cohorts 1921–1990). Source as in: Bernardi/Mortelmans/Larenza

According to the data, the mean age at the first episode of lone parenthood circles around thirty in all countries. This suggests that some variations are offset, for example, obliterating in statistical terms young single mothers still living with their parents. Nevertheless, Switzerland’s particularly long period of lone parenthood strikes the eyes of the reader. While in Switzerland it is over 10 years, for a majority of lone parents across Europe, living alone with children is a state that takes at most 5 years. Reasons for this may be linked to Switzerland’s socially and culturally conservative context. This may include institutional factors such as the legal system, the lack of family courts or the way maintenance payments are advanced.

These findings underscore the importance of qualitative studies which highlight the complex and evolving web of social relations and structures that shape lone parenthood as a crucial turning point in the life course. As shown by Bernardi/Larenza, the functioning of lone parent household varies greatly from case to case, involving new partners (stepfamilies), relatives, unrelated adults, grown-up children, paid caregivers and support networks etc., clearly suggesting that relational practices and effective distribution of care responsibilities may be as important as administrative or residential criteria for policy development.

High employment rates among lone parents

Overrepresented in social welfare, lone parents suffer from a widespread public discourse that portrays them as exploitative welfare users with no incentive to join the labour force whilst raising children. However, evidence from research suggests otherwise: whether in Switzerland or elsewhere in Europe compared to partnered mothers single mothers are considerably more likely to be in the labour market and work long hours. Looking in detail at the evidence, lone mothers show proportionally higher rates of employment for both full-time positions and long part-time hours. In addition, in comparison to partnered mothers they also show proportionally higher rates of unemployment or inactivity. Factors such as age, education level or migration and region of origin may play a role as shown, for instance, in an analysis in Switzerland which differentiates between migrant and non-migrant lone mothers. For lone mothers coming from outside Europe with lower levels of education the probability to be employed (see table below) is markedly lower compared to lone mothers from elsewhere in Europe and their counterparts of Swiss origins.

Predicted probabilities of being in vs. out of employment by partnership status (LM = lone mothers, MC = mothers in couples). Estimates from logit regression models, see Milewski/Struffolino/Bernardi

As a result, these findings suggest that the common and easy assumption that social protection measures tend to discourage lone mothers from joining the labour market should be revised. What is more, the lower levels of employment among certain groups of immigrant lone mothers hint at a) lower levels of income and stability in lesser qualified jobs and b) the greater lack of economic and social capital to cover the costs for childcare and commuting to and from cheaper residential areas that are further afield.

Gender inequalities and poverty risks

Research also points to the limits of active labour market policies as a means to reduce poverty among lone parents. Today, as in the past, lone-parent households are disproportionally hit by poverty. There is an obvious need for change in policy intervention. More immediately, this could involve changes in the way provisions are allocated to welfare users. For instance, rather than making reference to simple residential and financial criteria to attribute public resources, welfare provisions could more effectively be based on an estimation of the effective children care burden (who pays and how much, who spends time with them, who assumes family duties and what is the availability of public care or full-time schools). Similarly, welfare provisions could take the shape of stipends that allow holders (such as the above-mentioned lone-parent migrants) to pursue basic and/or further training whilst leaving their children at school and in care facilities.

However, in terms of poverty reduction, we suggest that on the long run it will be key to address gender inequalities. Mothers are still facing multiple disadvantages: at home as main caregivers; at work loosing out on career development and earnings compared to childless women or to fathers; and in the public domain through specific welfare regulations such as in Switzerland (i.e. “deficit partition”) that tend to push lone mothers with dependent children rather than lone fathers into welfare. As Hübgen shows in her extensive study using SILC data and covering 25 European countries, the more pronounced gender inequalities are regarding working hours and earnings, the higher are lone mothers’ poverty risks in spite of being employed. Thus, policies fostering equality between man and woman are bound to moderate poverty risks among lone mothers.

Reference / Links

Laura Bernardi, Professor of Life Course Demography and Sociology at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland; until December 2017 Deputy Director of the Swiss National Center for Competence in Research LIVES and since January 2018, Member of the Swiss National Research Council.

Ornella Larenza, MA, PhD student at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland; Member of the LIVES Doctoral Programme.

LIVES Impact (ISSN: 2297-6124) publishes regularly briefs with policy-relevant research findings from studies  conducted at the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES “Overcoming Vulnerability: Life-course perspectives” (NCCR LIVES). It is aimed at professionals, public officials and representatives active in social policy and related fields.

Series Editor: Pascal Maeder, KTT Officer, pascal.maeder@hes-so.ch

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