Cross-National Variation in the Relationship between Welfare Generosity and Single Mother Employment

AuthorThomas Biegert,David Brady,Lena Hipp
Published date01 July 2022
Date01 July 2022
Subject MatterPoverty, Employment, Income, and Income-Support Policies
ANNALS, AAPSS, 702, July 2022 37
DOI: 10.1177/00027162221120760
Variation in the
Generosity and
Single Mother
Reform of the U.S. welfare system in 1996 spurred
claims that cuts to welfare programs effectively incen-
tivized single mothers to find employment. It is difficult
to assess the veracity of those claims, however, absent
evidence of how the relationship between welfare ben-
efits and single mother employment generalizes across
countries. This study combines data from the European
Union Labour Force Survey and the U.S. Current
Population Survey (1992-2015) into one of the largest
samples of single mothers ever, testing the relationships
between welfare generosity and single mothers’
employment and work hours. We find no consistent
evidence of a negative relationship between welfare
generosity and single mother employment outcomes.
Rather, we find tremendous cross-national heterogene-
ity, which does not clearly correspond to well-known
institutional variations. Our findings demonstrate the
limitations of single country studies and the pervasive,
salient interactions between institutional contexts and
social policies.
Keywords: single mothers; employment; welfare state
benefits; cross-national; heterogeneity
Following the 1996 welfare reform in the
United States, American social policy
research largely concluded that single mothers
can be pushed to work (e.g., Blank 2002;
Corcoran et al. 2000; Danziger et al. 2002;
Herbst 2010; Heinrich 2014; Hoynes and
Thomas Biegert is an Assistant Professor in Social
Policy at the London School of Economics and Political
Science. His research on social policies and labor mar-
ket inequalities has been published in journals such as
American Sociological Review, Socio-Economic
Review, European Sociological Review, and Journal of
European Social Policy.
David Brady is a professor in the School of Public
Policy at University of California, Riverside. He is also
a Research Professor in Inequality and Social Policy at
the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. He authored
Rich Democracies, Poor People and edited The Oxford
Handbook of the Social Science of Poverty.
Stabile 2019; Noonan, Smith, and Corcoran 2007). For example, by claiming that
the increased employment of single mothers “has been achieved to a much
greater degree than anyone expected,” Moffitt (2002) affirmed classic arguments
about how generous social policies have adverse labor supply effects (e.g., Bitler
and Karoly 2015; Cascio etal. 2015; Immervoll etal. 2007). This conclusion also
affirmed the intuition that single mothers would be especially responsive to cuts
in benefits (Brady and Burroway 2012; Damaske, Bratter, and Frech 2017;
Destro and Brady 2011; Gonzalez 2004; Herbst 2010; Jaehrling, Kalina, and
Mesaros 2015). Utility-maximizing single mothers, the argument goes, could find
parenting to be more meaningful and rewarding than low-wage work, while gen-
erous welfare programs subsidize the decision not to work. Conversely, the ines-
capable costs of raising children could be a particularly strong incentive to work
in the absence of generous welfare programs. Consistent with this line of think-
ing, the reduction in welfare generosity in the United States did coincide with a
substantial increase in single mother employment (Hoynes and Stabile 2019).
Despite the prominence of this American literature, its conclusions have been
subjected to little cross-national scrutiny. Indeed, the American literature rarely
acknowledges that the U.S. case is unusual in terms of high inequality, weak
social policies, and lack of institutions supporting working mothers (Hegewisch
and Gornick 2011; Misra et al. 2012; Nieuwenhuis and Maldonado 2018).
Compared to other rich democracies, the risk of poverty and unemployment for
single mothers is also unusually high in the United States (Brady, Finnigan, and
Hübgen 2017; Damaske, Bratter, and Frech 2017).
The U.S.-based literature has nonetheless been quite influential for economic
and social policy debates since the 1990s. Albeit less punitive than the U.S.
reforms, the Working Families Tax Credit introduced in the UK in 1999 similarly
aimed to increase employment of single mothers (Hills and Waldfogel 2005,
Francesconi and Van der Klaauw 2007). The UK subsequently documented ris-
ing employment rates among single mothers and doubled down on restricting
lone parents’ entitlements to social assistance in 2008 (Rafferty and Wiggan
2011). By contrast, though, a reform similar to the Personal Responsibility and
Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in the Netherlands in 1996 did not increase
single mother employment (Knijn and van Wel 2001).
Is the U.S. case unusual? If, indeed, the American findings are not robust
across countries, this should qualify the general conclusions drawn from the U.S.
case. Rather than a general relationship between welfare generosity and single
Lena Hipp is the head of the research group “Work & Care” at the WZB Berlin Social Science
Center and holds a professorship at the University of Potsdam/Germany. Her research on
social inequalities related to gender and family has been published in various journals, includ-
ing European Sociological Review, Journal of Marriage and the Family, Social Forces, and
Socio-Economic Review.
NOTE: Previous versions of this article were presented at the European Social Policy
Association Network (ESPAnet), American Sociological Association, and Swiss Sociological
Association meetings. We thank those audiences, the editors of this volume, an anonymous
reviewer, as well as the reading group at the LSE Social Policy Department for their sugges-
tions and comments.

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