The growth of lone parenthood is a trend common to many advanced industrial countries. In 1990 Britain had one of the highest rates of lone parenthood in Europe (with 19 percent of families with children being lone parent families) along with Sweden (19 percent), Norway (19 percent), and Denmark (18 percent). The European countries with some of the lowest levels included Greece (5 percent), Ireland (9 percent), Italy (7 percent), Portugal (6 per cent), and Spain (5 percent). This division suggests some combination of North/South, rich/poor, Protestant/Catholic factors at work. Countries that are generally rich, Protestant, and North European have much higher rates of lone parenthood than those that are mainly poor, Southern, and Catholic, though Britain cuts across this division as it has comparatively high rates of poverty but is Northern and Protestant. Culture and religion therefore seem important factors when seeking to explain variations in rates of lone parenthood. If we look outside of Europe but remain within the developed world, Japan had a very low rate of lone parenthood (4 percent) in the early 1990s, Australia had a slightly lower rate than Britain (15 percent), and the US had by far the highest rate (25 percent).
The percentage of births outside marriage also varies substantially by country. This figure cannot be taken as a direct indicator of lone parenthood as these births are often to cohabiting parents, but there does appear to be some correlation, as the highest rates of births outside marriage were in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden in the early 1990s. The lowest rates were in Greece and Italy. The United Kingdom and the US fell somewhere in between these two extremes. Divorce rates are also associated with lone parenthood. The highest rates in the early 1990s were in Denmark, the UK, and Sweden, with the lowest rates in Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. The US had by far the highest rate.
Another interesting point of comparison is the family marital status of lone parents within each country. For example, the proportion of lone parents who are never married varied dramatically, from more than half in Norway and Sweden to about a third in the US and UK. Never married lone parents were virtually nonexistent in Greece, Portugal, and Japan in the early 1990s.
Some researchers have tried to categorize countries into groups in terms of how women and lone parents fare, especially in relation to employment and social policies. This general approach of categorizing ”welfare regimes” is most heavily associated with Esping Andersen, who categorized welfare regimes in terms of the policy logics that revolved around a paid worker’s dependence or independence from the labor market.
Another way of classifying countries is in terms of whether they focus on lone parents as mothers (the ”caregiving” model) or workers (the ”parent/worker” model). The Netherlands is a prime example of the former, where sufficient support is given to lone parents to remain in the home to look after their children. The state therefore provides support for women as mothers. Lone parents are able to establish autonomous households without suffering poverty and deprivation and they can do so without having to engage with the labor market. Sweden, however, is an example of the parent/worker model. Lone parents here are also able to establish autonomous households without suffering poverty and deprivation, but they tend to do so through engaging with the labor market. The state provides support in terms of child care, wages are relatively generous, and there are reasonable benefit payments to those out of work.
The ability of lone parents to establish autonomous households without suffering poverty and deprivation might be seen as a benchmark with which to measure gender (and class) equality in different countries. We have seen that there are different ways of doing this: we can support lone parents to stay at home and care for their children (by having generous benefits) or we can support lone parents to take up paid work (by having affordable childcare and keeping wage rates high). Perhaps there is also a middle way in terms of supporting lone parents to combine roles by means of packaging their income – some income from part time work, some from benefits, some from maintenance. This is more the approach taken in the UK, where in work benefits such as Working Tax Credit (formerly Family Credit) enable lone parents to put together such a package. But in the UK, wage and benefit levels have generally been too low to avoid poverty for all but a minority of lone parents.
Effects of Social Security Policy
It is common for those on the political right to argue that lone parenthood has risen because women have access to relatively high rates of benefit. There is some evidence that appears to support this view; Greece and Portugal, for example, have low levels of social security support for lone parents and also low levels of lone parenthood. At the other end of the spectrum, Norway, Denmark, and Australia have higher levels of both social assistance and lone parenthood. But we must be careful not to draw conclusions about causation from these associations. It is possible that the high rates of benefit in some countries were the result of a growth in lone parenthood (due to a growing lobby group and increasing recognition of the need for higher benefits) rather than the cause of the growth. Also, the US provides an important exception to any correlation between levels of lone parenthood and levels of benefit. As we have seen, the US has the highest level of lone parenthood in the western world, but its level of social assistance is among the lowest (lower even than that available in Ireland and Spain).
So it seems that there is only a weak association between high rates of benefits for lone parents and high rates of lone parenthood. Social security policy may have only weak effects on the rate of lone parenthood, but it may nevertheless affect the employment participation rates of lone parents. Here again, however, the evidence is inconclusive. For example, Sweden had the largest proportion of lone parents in paid work in the early 1990s, but the benefit replacement rate was also the highest. This means that Swedish lone parents, compared with lone parents in other countries, would not be much better off financially in work than on benefit. We might therefore expect them to have low employment rates, but they do not. This therefore contradicts a narrow rational economic model of behavior that assumes people weigh up the financial costs and benefits of a particular course of action and then act accordingly. France and Germany, on the other hand, had relatively high proportions of lone parents in work along with relatively low benefit replacement rates (thus supporting the rational economic model). Den mark and France had similar proportions of lone parents in the labor force, but Denmark was relatively generous to lone parents on benefit whereas France was relatively mean.
Employment Patterns and Policies
As we have seen, there is also a great deal of variation in the employment patterns of lone parents across different countries. In the early 1990s the Netherlands, the UK, and Ireland had the lowest rates of full time paid work for lone parents: fewer than one in five lone parents in these countries had a paid job. The highest rates were found in Portugal, France, Japan, Italy, Sweden, and Denmark, where over half of all lone parents worked full time. Overall, however, lone mothers in all countries apart from the UK are either more likely to be working full time than all mothers or the level of full time employment is about the same. And generally, lone mothers are less likely to work part time than all mothers are. So what explains these variations in employment rates?
Some of the variation in lone mothers’ employment rates across different countries mirrors variation in the employment rates of mothers in couples. This supports a gendered approach to lone parenthood and also questions the appropriateness of singling out lone mothers as a group. If the experience of lone mothers is just an extreme version of that for all mothers, then perhaps policies should be aimed at improving the opportunities of all mothers rather than just focusing on lone mothers in particular. Or perhaps policies could be aimed at those (both women and men) with poorer educational and employment prospects.
Most advanced industrial countries are increasingly encouraging (if not compelling) lone parents to enter the labor market. But the ways in which they do this vary. Some, like the US, aim to achieve this largely by restricting access to benefits. Others, like the UK, attempt to ”make work pay” principally through in work benefits. And others, like Norway, provide cheap childcare. These policies have been most successful where they fit with lone parents’ own aspirations about employment. In the Netherlands, for example, a new policy to encourage lone parents into employment has largely failed because lone parents themselves, their employment advisers, and society more generally did not think it appropriate to push lone parents (back) into the labor market. Social and cultural norms about mothers as carers or workers have a major impact on employment patterns.
Many countries are now emphasizing paid work rather than care as the route to autonomy for lone parents. But paid work is no guarantee against poverty, as is evident in Japan and the US. The success of some countries, like Sweden, in combining high employment rates with low poverty rates is due to a number of factors, such as:
- Lone parents working full time rather than part time.
- Childcare provision paid for by the state.
- Long parental leave schemes.
- Paid leave to be with sick children.
- Strong social transfers (benefit payments) for those out of work.
- State advanced maintenance schemes.
We cannot therefore simply move lone parents into paid work and expect poverty to be eradicated. Other policies, such as those relating to childcare and employment rights, also need to be put in place.
The strategy of moving lone parents into paid work places little value on the unpaid work in the home that most lone parents spend much of their time doing. Much of this unpaid work revolves around caring for children. In the past, “mothering” work was valued in as much as it attracted considerable status for women. Many states reinforced this by exempting lone parents on benefit from seeking work, as were the partners of unemployed men. From one point of view, such an approach is a positive one towards women as it enables them to carry out the “mothering” work that they wish to do. From another point of view, it reinforces patriarchal assumptions that women’s role is in the home. Not only does it lack any expectation that women might want to get paid work, it also fails to provide them with any support, advice, or training should they decide they do wish to get paid jobs. Men gain access to the wages from paid work and women remain dependent either on men (if they are in couples) or on the state (if they are lone parents).
The move towards encouraging lone parents to take paid work can therefore be seen from either of these perspectives. It can be seen as lowering the status of the unpaid “mothering” work that women do or it could be seen as challenging women’s confinement to the domestic sphere.
Difference, Diversity, and Identity
Lone parent families have received a great deal of attention from the media, politicians, policy makers, and academics. But should we focus on them as a particular group? This depends on the answer to two further questions. First, are lone parents a homogeneous group with distinctive characteristics that unite them? Second, are lone parents sufficiently distinct from other parents or other groups to warrant separate consideration?
The answer to the first question is that lone parents do have some distinctive characteristics which unite them as a particular group. They have challenged prevailing norms of the two parent family, based on the idea of a breadwinning man and a housewife. The lone parent, to some extent, takes on both these roles and since the vast majority of lone parents are women they are also united by their gender. However, it is also widely assumed that lone parents are united in poverty, but although poverty is widespread among lone parents, it is not universal. Some lone parents are much better off than others and the social class background of lone parents can make a considerable difference to the experience of living in a lone parent family.
Another source of difference between lone parents is how they became lone parents (and this is often linked to economic difference, too). Younger women who have babies while single are generally from very poor backgrounds, while women who separate from husbands sometimes come from better off backgrounds and experience lone parenthood in different ways. Yet another source of difference is ethnicity. Most lone parents in western countries are white, but some ethnic minorities are over represented in lone parent families (such as Afro Caribbean women in the UK and African American women in the US) and some are underrepresented (such as Asian women).
There are many other potential sources of difference between lone parent families. Some lone parents are sick or disabled and others have sick or disabled children. Sexuality and culture also vary among lone parents and all these factors can affect the experience of lone parenthood as well as the identity of the lone parent. Perhaps a lesbian lone mother will feel she has more in common with a lesbian mother in a couple than with a heterosexual lone mother?
This brings us to the second question about whether some lone parents have more in com mon with other parents, or other groups, than they do with other lone parents. For example, a young never married lone mother living in poor housing may feel she has (and may actually have) more in common with the married mother living next door than she does to a divorced lone mother living in a large house in an affluent area. Of course, all lone parents face similar issues when it comes to raising children without a partner, but even in couples, one parent (usually the mother) tends to take on more of the parental responsibility and associated work than the other partner. So perhaps the difference between lone mothers and mothers in couples is not so great.
A final reason why lone parenthood should not be seen as a monolithic state is that it is not, usually, for life. Couple families turn into lone parent families, which then turn again into couple families and so on. So to make very large distinctions between lone parent families on the one hand and couple families on the other must be questioned. In the UK, research has found that half of all lone parents leave lone parenthood within 6 years of becoming a lone parent.
As already mentioned, issues around difference, diversity, and identity are complex and fluid. More research needs to be carried out to explore the homogeneity or heterogeneity of lone parenthood both on an objective level (e.g., com paring levels of income, work, disability, etc. with other groups) and on a more subjective level in terms of identity.
It is also important to consider the role of other actors rather than simply focus on the lone parent. Concern about nonresident parents has mostly revolved around issues of financial support for children, but the role of fathers more generally in relation to care work is a very important issue. And children’s perspectives on family life are starting to receive more attention – deservedly so. The role of grandparents, steprelatives, broader family, and friends also needs to be considered.
Families change over time and more research needs to be carried out on the dynamics of family life. There is already some quantitative longitudinal work in this area, but very little qualitative longitudinal work. Qualitative panel studies are unusual and raise various methodological issues, but these should be explored to provide an important and currently largely lacking perspective on lone parenthood.
Finally, there is an urgent need for more up to date, comparative data on lone parenthood. Much of the data referred to in this entry relates to the early 1990s and yet it is highly likely that the picture has changed since then. Such research will need to consider carefully different definitions of lone parenthood in different countries so that meaningful comparisons can be made.
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