Single Mothers’ Income in Twelve Rich Countries: Differences in Disadvantage across the Distribution

AuthorSusan Harkness
Published date01 July 2022
Date01 July 2022
Subject MatterAcross the Income Distribution and Wealth
164 ANNALS, AAPSS, 702, July 2022
DOI: 10.1177/00027162221120758
Single Mothers’
Income in
Twelve Rich
Differences in
across the
I examine how single motherhood affects income in
different quantiles of the distribution in twelve rich
countries. Using harmonized data from the Luxembourg
Income Study, I show how the distribution of income
for households headed by single mothers differs from
households with children that are headed by couples. I
show that there is a striking variation by country in the
influence of single motherhood on income at different
points of the distribution. In some countries, such as
the United Kingdom, single motherhood has a greater
effect on income at the top of the distribution than at
the bottom. In others, such as the United States, effects
are largest at the bottom of the distribution. I discuss
the role of employment and social policies in driving
differences between countries in the income penalties
associated with single motherhood across the
Keywords: single mothers; distribution of income;
unconditional quantile treatment effect
models; state benefits; employment
Previous research has shown single mothers
to be less well off and at higher risk of pov-
erty than mothers in couples. While single
mothers face a high risk of poverty across rich
countries (Gornick and Jantii 2012), those in
the United States are thought to be at greater
risk than their peers in other advanced econo-
mies, given that in the United States there is a
Susan Harkness is Professor of social policy at the
University of Bristol, co-investigator at the ESRC
Research Centre for Micro-Social Change at the
University of Essex, and visiting professor at the Centre
for the Analysis of Social Exclusion, London School of
Economics. Her research examines how gender and fam-
ily structure affect labor market and income inequalites.
NOTE: I gratefully acknowledge funding from the
Economic and Social Research Council, United
Kingdom, through the Research Centre on Micro-
Social Change (MiSoC), grant number ES/S012486/1.
I would like to thank Zachary Parolin, Janet Gornick,
and Amanda Sheely for helpful comments.
relative paucity of public transfers that are available to them(Brady, Finnigan,
and Hübgen 2017; Rothwell and McEwen 2017). In contrast, the same studies
show that the United Kingdom (UK) stands out for its success in reducing single
mother poverty, with the generosity of state benefits playing a critical role in its
While cross-national differences in the overall risk of poverty for single moth-
ers have been widely studied, much less is known about how single mothers
wider economic circumstances differ. Indeed, single mother hood is likely to
affect household income across the income distribution; and while public trans-
fers may help alleviate poverty in broad terms, their influence further up the
distribution may be limited, particularly if the transfers are means tested. As a
result, countries with low poverty “penalties” to single motherhood, achieved via
redistribution through the tax-benefit system, may at the same time have large
income penalties. In other words, cross-country differences in poverty may tell
us little about differences in single mothers’ relative economic position.
One reason low rates of single-mother poverty may be accompanied by high
income penalties is because generous state benefits, which protect single mothers
from poverty, may come at the cost of reduced financial incentives for paid work.
Evidence from the late 1980s and 1990s shows a link between high rates of means
testing and the relatively low economic status of single mothers because they were
discouraged from working (Wong, Garfinkel, and McLanahan 1993; Dickens and
Ellwood 2003). Since then, tax credits, paid to those in employment on low-
incomes, have become an increasingly prominent feature of the tax- benefit system
in Anglo-European countries (Kenworthy 2015). While earning subsidies improve
the incentives of those with low earnings potential to enter employment, they are
frequently accompanied by high marginal tax rates, reducing incentives to work
longer hours or for greater pay (OECD 2018; Brewer and Hoynes 2019).
Moreover, if more generous benefits are offered, a greater number of people are
drawn into means testing. For example, in the UK, while generous government
transfers have been crucial for reducing single-parent poverty, few single parents
escape means testing; in 2019–2020, 84 percent of single parents were estimated
to be entitled to the main means-tested benefit supporting low-income working-
age families: Universal Credit (Waters and Wernham 2021).
These tensions in the tax-benefit system means that high benefit levels, which
protect single parents from poverty, reduce the financial incentives of single
mothers further up the income distribution to go into paid work. Consequently,
in countries such as the UK, where the benefit system has been effective at
reducing single-parent poverty, low levels of poverty may not translate into single
mothers having higher relative economic status. Instead, generous means-tested
benefits may have the effect of compressing the distribution of single mothers’
income so that while single mothers may avoid poverty, their incomes may still
fall far below those of couples with children. In comparison, in countries where
non-means-tested benefits are generous, there will be fewer distortionary effects
on employment, and single mothers may have higher earnings and income
(Wong, Garfinkel, and McLanahan 1993; Brady and Burroway 2012), although
inequality among single mothers may be greater.

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