Economic Precarity among Single Parents in the United States during the COVID-19 Pandemic

AuthorZachary Parolin,Emma K. Lee
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/00027162221122682
Published date01 July 2022
Date01 July 2022
Subject MatterSingle-Parent Families in the U.S. during COVID-19
206 ANNALS, AAPSS, 702, July 2022
DOI: 10.1177/00027162221122682
Economic
Precarity among
Single Parents
in the United
States during
the COVID-19
Pandemic
By
ZACHARY PAROLIN
and
EMMA K. LEE
1122682ANN THE ANNALS OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMYECONOMIC PRECARITY OF U.S. SINGLE PARENTS DURING COVID-19
research-article2022
Single-parent families have historically faced greater
economic precarity relative to other family types in the
United States. We investigate how and whether those
disparities widened after the onset of the COVID-19
pandemic. Using data on exposure to school and child-
care center closures, unemployment, poverty, food
hardship, and frequent worrying among single-parent
families versus two-parent families throughout 2020
and 2021, we find that the challenges that single par-
ents faced prior to the pandemic generally magnified
after the arrival of COVID-19. In April 2020, one in
four single parents was unemployed, and unemploy-
ment rates recovered more slowly for single parents
throughout 2021, perhaps in part due to their unequal
exposure to school and childcare closures. The expan-
sion of income transfers largely buffered against poten-
tial increases in poverty and hardship, but levels of
worrying among single parents continued to worsen
throughout 2021.
Keywords: poverty; hardship; COVID-19; single
parents; economic insecurity
Single-parent families have historically faced
greater economic precarity relative to other
family types in the United States. Studies have
demonstrated that this is in part due to the
United States providing less generous income
support for single parents (or families with
children more broadly) compared to many
other high-income countries (Maldonado and
Zachary Parolin is an Assistant Professor of social pol-
icy at Bocconi University in Milan and a senior
research fellow with Columbia University’s Center on
Poverty and Social Policy. His recent work on poverty,
inequality, and social policy has been published in the
American Sociological Review, Demography, Nature
Human Behaviour, and elsewhere.
Emma K. Lee is a research assistant at Columbia
University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy. Her
research on school and childcare closures in the United
States during the COVID-19 pandemic appeared in
Nature Human Behaviour and Socius.
Correspondence: Zachary.parolin@unibocconi.it
ECONOMIC PRECARITY OF U.S. SINGLE PARENTS DURING COVID-19 207
Nieuwenhuis 2015; Aerts, Marx, and Parolin, this volume). Moreover, from the
early 1990s through 2019, the American welfare state increasingly targeted
income transfers at working parents, leaving jobless parents with few opportuni-
ties to access cash-based social assistance. In 2019, this work-oriented welfare
state, combined with high levels of employment (including among single par-
ents), contributed to a record-low poverty rate. In 2020, however, the COVID-19
pandemic sent the U.S. unemployment rate to a record high, rapidly exposing the
limitations of the country’s employment-centered welfare state.
In April 2020, the same month in which unemployment climbed to 19 percent
in the United States, childcare centers across the country closed, most schools
turned to distance learning, and levels of poverty and hardship threatened to rise.
However, the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic were not shared equally
across family types. This study documents how trends in economic and social
insecurity varied for single-parent families relative to two-parent families
throughout 2020 and 2021. Specifically, we use data from several different
sources to investigate trends in five measures related to economic precarity:
exposure to school and childcare center closures, unemployment, poverty, food
hardship, and subjective well-being.
These five indicators are closely intertwined, and they can offer a multidimen-
sional perspective of the challenges facing families with children: school and
childcare centers may contribute to declines in employment for parents with care
responsibilities, a task that is already more challenging for single-parent families
relative to two-parent families. In turn, school and care closures may contribute
to higher rates of joblessness (or both employment and closures may simply be
endogenous to the spread of COVID-19 and government-enforced mobility
restrictions). Regardless, declining employment may affect poverty and food
hardship. Meanwhile, frequent worrying, one dimension of subjective well-
being, may be associated with poverty and food hardship; conversely, in the con-
text of the global health crisis, frequent worrying may be detached from current
economic conditions. Investigating each of these dimensions offers a broad
account of the economic precarity of single parents throughout the pandemic.
Our findings lead to three broad takeaways. First, the neighborhoods with the
highest shares of single parents faced greater exposure to school and childcare
closures during the 2020–2021 school year. Additionally, single parents consistently
faced higher rates of unemployment, poverty, food insufficiency, and frequent wor-
rying relative to two-parent families throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Second, we find that the strongest reductions in poverty and food hardship for
single-parent families occurred after the expansion of the Child Tax Credit
(CTC) in July 2021, which provided monthly and unconditional cash support for
most families with children. Specifically, the CTC payments provided monthly
cash payments of $300 per child under 6, and $250 per child between 6 and 18,
from July through December 2021. Thus, while single-parent families generally
faced more challenges throughout the pandemic relative to other family types,
the trends observed after the introduction of the CTC suggest that a sustained
distribution of unconditional cash support for lower-income families could
reduce economic insecurity for single parents moving forward.

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