Making Parental Leave Policies Work for Single Mothers: Lessons from Europe

AuthorAlzbeta Bartova,Adeline Otto,Wim Van Lancker
Published date01 July 2022
Date01 July 2022
Subject MatterChildcare, Parental Leave, and Immigration Policies
ANNALS, AAPSS, 702, July 2022 129
DOI: 10.1177/00027162221134445
Parental Leave
Policies Work
for Single
Lessons from
It is well documented that national parental leave poli-
cies encourage parents’ employment. Research on
parental leave, though, has generally failed to draw les-
sons on how leave policy affects the employment and
economic well-being of single parents. We examine the
extent to which parental leave policies support the
employment of single mothers with children under six
years old across twenty-seven European countries,
showing that single mothers are more likely to work
and to work longer hours if they are eligible for paren-
tal leave. For single mothers who were not working
before childbirth, eligibility for generous leave benefits
and longer parental leave are associated with better
employment outcomes after childbirth. We argue that
while parental leave sustains employment for working
single mothers, it might also facilitate entry into
employment for nonworking mothers.
Keywords: single mothers; maternal employment;
work-family reconciliation; parental leave;
family policy; EU-SILC
In many European countries, households
with limited access to (quality) employment
Alzbeta Bartova is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow at
the Centre for sociological research at KU Leuven,
Belgium. In her research, she focuses on child-related
leave policies in Europe and their effect on social and
gender inequality and sociodemographic outcomes.
Adeline Otto is a postdoctoral researcher at the KU
Leuven Centre for Sociological Research, Belgium. In
her research, she compares social policies across different
European countries, with a special focus on the income
distributional, employment, and working conditions
effects of social benefits. More recently, she also investi-
gates eco-social policies, social inequalities, and public
attitudes in the transition to carbon-neutral societies.
Wim Van Lancker is an Associate Professor of social
work and social policy, affiliated with the Centre for
Sociological Research, KU Leuven, Belgium. His
research focuses on the link between the design of fam-
ily and social policies and their outcomes in terms of
poverty, inequality, employment, and well-being.
often face a higher risk of poverty (Nieuwenhuis etal. 2020). Single mothers are
among the most vulnerable in this respect (Nieuwenhuis and Maldonado 2018),
which is reason for concern about their well-being and the well-being of their
children. To help address this poverty risk and to provide aid with access to
employment, traditional income protection policies in developed welfare states
have been complemented by “social investment” policies (Cantillon and Van
Lancker 2013; Morel, Palier, and Palme 2012). Social investment policy aims to
address new social risks from industrial changes and changing family structures
(Bonoli 2005) by developing human capital and supporting labor market partici-
pation. In family policy, the priorities of social investment are to enable mothers
to retain their position in the labor market, to help them better balance their
work-family responsibilities, and to reduce their risk of poverty and financial
stress through financial compensation for job interruption due to childbirth and
childcare. These work-family reconciliation policies (WFRP) refer to parental
leave, early childhood education and care (ECEC) services, and flexible employ-
Given the high risk of poverty among single parents, many scholars have tra-
ditionally focused on the poverty reduction and employment effects of state
income support such as family allowances and other direct transfers or tax advan-
tages to families with children (Rainwater and Smeeding 2004; Van Lancker,
Ghysels, and Cantillon 2015; Nieuwenhuis and Maldonado 2015). Fewer studies
investigate the effect of WFRP on mothers’ poverty and employment outcomes,
but the results of these studies show that WFRP are strongly associated with
higher levels of mothers’ employment, working hours, and wages (Gornick and
Meyers 2003; Pronzato 2009; Nieuwenhuis, Need, and Van Der Kolk 2012). In
other words, WFRP policies help reduce poverty and appear to be particularly
beneficial for single mothers (Maldonado and Nieuwenhuis 2015; Misra et al.
However, extant research has assumed that the employment effects of WFRP
are universal among single mothers. This ignores the actual eligibility require-
ments of these policies (Zagel and Van Lancker 2022; Bernardi and Mortelmans
2018) and variation in policy designs. Most research draws on macro-indicators
to measure the effects of policies, ignoring the fact that family policies are com-
plex and multilayered and that not everyone is entitled to policies under the same
conditions. Some single mothers may even be excluded from the state support
altogether if they do not meet the eligibility conditions of reconciliation policies,
for instance, because of their work status before childbirth (Marynissen, Wood,
and Neels 2021). The level of accessibility will then determine the potential of
the reconciliation policies to improve single mothers’ employment situation.
Hence, our research question: how are different characteristics of leave poli-
cies related to single mothers’ employment in Europe? We are interested in the
NOTE: This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research
and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 893008. This
study is based on data from Eurostat, the European Union Statistics on Income and Living
Conditions 2016–2019,

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