Ethno-Racial Variation in Single Motherhood Prevalences and Penalties for Child Poverty in the United States, 1995–2018

AuthorRegina S. Baker
Published date01 July 2022
Date01 July 2022
Subject MatterPoverty, Employment, Income, and Income-Support Policies
20 ANNALS, AAPSS, 702, July 2022
DOI: 10.1177/00027162221120759
Variation in
Prevalences and
Penalties for
Child Poverty
in the United
States, 1995–
Empirical studies link high racial inequality in U.S.
child poverty to the higher prevalence of single moth-
erhood among certain racial groups. But a growing lit-
erature is demonstrating how the impact of single
parenthood and family structure on children varies by
racial group, including evidence that Black children
experience smaller single motherhood “penalties” for
some outcomes, like education. I use Luxembourg
Income Study data for the United States from 1995 to
2018 to further investigations of ethno-racial variation
in single motherhood penalties for child poverty. I pro-
vide a descriptive portrait of the levels and trends of
children living in single-mother households and of the
poverty penalties associated with children living in such
households. I also show that, on average, Black children
experience smaller penalties from single motherhood
and Latino children experience larger penalties, both
compared to White children. I conclude with discus-
sion of potential reasons for this variation and future
directions for research.
Keywords: single motherhood; family structure; child
poverty; racial inequality
Single-mother families in the United States
are significantly more likely than married-
parent families to live in poverty, and substan-
tial increases in single motherhood in the past
have corresponded with large increases in
child poverty (Bianchi 1999; Garfinkel and
McLanahan 1986). A disproportionate share of
nonmarital births, single motherhood, and child
poverty has occurred in Black families (Bianchi
1999; Ellwood and Jencks 2004). Hence, schol-
ars and policy-makers have placed heavy
emphasis on family structure as a causal mecha-
nism for the persistent racial inequality in child
Regina S. Baker is an Assistant Professor of sociology at
the University of Pennsylvania. Her research examines
the role of micro and macro contexts in shaping poverty
and socioeconomic disparities. She has published in the
American Journal of Sociology, Journal of Marriage and
Family, and Social Forces among others.
poverty (see Amato and Maynard 2007; Ellwood and Jencks 2004; McLanahan
1985; McLanahan 2009; Thomas and Sawhill 2002).
But despite the seemingly strong relationship between single motherhood
prevalence and racial inequality in child poverty in the United States, a growing
literature casts doubt on the explanatory power of family structure. For instance,
cross-national studies have emphasized the salience of the labor market and wel-
fare state, as opposed to family structure, in explaining America’s high child
poverty (see Brady, Finnigan, and Hübgen 2017; Chen and Corak 2008; Gornick
and Jäntii 2012). Similarly, U.S.-focused studies have shown other factors, such
as employment, education, or immigrant status, are more consequential for child
poverty and racial gaps in poverty than family structure (see Baker 2015; Baker
etal. 2021; Thiede, Kim, and Slack 2017). Studies also demonstrate racial differ-
ences in the impact of family structure on a variety of outcomes such as mothers’
disadvantage from poverty risk factors (Williams and Baker 2021), wealth accu-
mulation (Addo and Lichter 2013), and children’s life outcomes (Cavanagh and
Fomby 2019; Cross 2020; McLoyd etal. 2000).
Such disparate outcomes raise the question of whether the poverty penalties
that accrue to children as a result of single motherhood differ across ethno-racial
groups. This information could deepen our insights on the race-family structure-
poverty link. To build on prior scholarship, I draw on Brady, Finnigan, and
Hübgen’s (2017) “prevalences and penalties” (PP) framework, which examines
the risks of poverty in terms of the share of the population with a risk (preva-
lences) and the increased probability of poverty associated with a risk (penalties).
I ask, What are the levels and trends of the prevalences and penalties of single
motherhood (with respect to child poverty), and how do they vary for children
across ethno-racial lines? I address these questions by analyzing data on the
United States from 1995 to 2018. I conclude with a discussion of potential expla-
nations for the observed ethno-racial differences and implications of these find-
ings for future research.
Background and Motivation
Single motherhood prevalence and poverty
American poverty scholarship and policy debates have placed a heavy empha-
sis on the role of single motherhood in perpetuating racial inequalities in child
poverty. This is partly attributable to changing family demographics in the United
States. Beginning in the 1960s, a striking trend of marriage decline and increased
nonmarital births fundamentally transformed the American family (Cherlin
2010). The rate of nonmarital births to women increased dramatically from 4
percent to 31 percent between the 1960s and early 1990s, which coincided with
a sharp rise in child poverty in the 1980s (Bianchi 1999). Hence, child poverty
was increasingly concentrated among young, unmarried mothers, and their chil-
dren (Bianchi 1999), to the point single-mother poverty became the “new
American dilemma” (Garfinkel and McLanahan 1986).

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT