Income Support Policies for Single Parents in Europe and the United States: What Works Best?

AuthorElise Aerts,Ive Marx,Zachary Parolin
Published date01 July 2022
Date01 July 2022
Subject MatterPoverty, Employment, Income, and Income-Support Policies
ANNALS, AAPSS, 702, July 2022 55
DOI: 10.1177/00027162221120448
Income Support
Policies for
Single Parents
in Europe and
the United
States: What
Works Best?
Poverty rates among single parents vary considerably
across countries, in part reflecting differences in the
generosity and design of minimum income protections.
We ask what the optimal ways are to target income sup-
port to single parents, if the prime objective of policy is
to shelter those households from poverty. We map
minimum income provisions for working and nonwork-
ing single-parent households across Europe and the
United States, showing that three things matter for
adequate minimum income protection. First, mini-
mum wage levels matter, obviously for working single
parents, but also for jobless ones since they effectively
set the ‘glass ceiling’ for out-of-work benefits. Second,
the overall generosity of the child benefit package is
crucial to shelter both working and jobless single par-
ents from poverty. Third, countries that employ a strat-
egy of “targeting within universalism” (that is directing
extra support to vulnerable groups such as single par-
ents within the context of a universal benefit program)
tend to do best.
Keywords: minimum income protection; targeting,
minimum wages; child benefits; single
Single parents face particular challenges. Even in
the most developed welfare states, they are con-
fronted with high poverty risks. Nieuwenhuis and
Maldonado (2018) point out that single parents are
caught in a triple bind of not having adequate
resources to find employment that is adequate to
Elise Aerts holds an MSc in social and economic sci-
ences at the University of Antwerp. Currently, she is a
PhD researcher at the Centre for Social Policy Herman
Deleeck. Her research focuses mainly on social policy,
income inequality, and micro-simulation.
Ive Marx is a Professor of social policy at the University of
Antwerp and director of the Centre for Social Policy
Herman Deleeck. He has published extensively on the
issues of minimum income protection, including the vol-
umes Minimum Income Protection in Flux (Palgrave) and
Handbook on In-Work Poverty Research (Edward Elgar).
provide economic well-being, while benefit levels are inadequate as well. Altogether,
single parents face difficulties in combining the roles of sole breadwinner and sole care
provider. They obviously lack the options that couples have to share these tasks.
Because of the particularly challenging circumstances that single-parent
households face, there is a relatively easy case to be made for providing those
households with extra public income support. Just as welfare states already redis-
tribute from childless individuals to families with children to minimize the wel-
fare loss associated with childrearing, the state could also, as it were, step in as a
substitute for the income from an absent partner. Extra income through social
transfers, for example, can enable them to outsource some caregiving. Or the
extra money may allow them to work less and devote more time to parenting.
On top of the inherent challenges single parents face, they are also more likely
to be in a weaker economic position. Most single-parent families are headed by
women (Chzhen and Bradshaw 2012). They are thus at a disadvantage in terms
of labor market opportunities and earnings, especially when they have lower
levels of education (Gornick 2004; Härkönen, Manzoni, and Bihagen 2016).
Moreover, the lower skilled among them are often reliant on jobs in sectors like
retail, hospitality, or social services that require childcare at the most irregular
hours, exacerbating work-care struggles that are hard enough as they are.
In short, single parents are in an inherently disadvantaged economic position
in societies where double-earner households set the norm. And the less skilled
the working parent is, the more the disadvantage compounds, not just because of
their lower earnings capacity, but also because of their reliance on jobs with
irregular hours that generally cannot be worked remotely. All of this warrants a
degree of preferential treatment, especially if a child’s well-being is the principal
concern. Poverty has detrimental effects for children for the entirety of their life
course, especially in terms of educational and cognitive outcomes (Najman etal.
2009; Lacour and Tissington 2011).
There is thus a multifold and well-documented rationale for providing single
parents with extra state support—“targeting” in social policy terminology. This
begs the core question in this paper: what is the optimal degree of targeting when
it comes to providing income support to single parents, especially if the prime
objective is to shelter them from financial poverty?
The Complexities of Targeting Public Income Support
The debate on targeting essentially comes down to the allocation of resources:
who should get what degree of social protection? Benefits are targeted if there is
Zachary Parolin is an Assistant Professor of social policy 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.
NOTE: This research was cofinanced by the Research Foundation – Flanders, PhD Fellowship

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