The Wealth (Disadvantage) of Single-Parent Households

AuthorSalvatore Morelli,Brian Nolan,Juan C. Palomino,Philippe Van Kerm
Published date01 July 2022
Date01 July 2022
Subject MatterAcross the Income Distribution and Wealth
188 ANNALS, AAPSS, 702, July 2022
DOI: 10.1177/00027162221123448
The Wealth
of Single-Parent
Wealth is a buffer against economic shocks and the
intergenerational transmission of disadvantage. We
investigate the wealth of single-parent households in
six high-income countries that span a variety of institu-
tional contexts and welfare regimes. Using household
survey data, we show that single-parent households in
all these countries are disadvantaged in the wealth
they hold, compared to dual-parent households—
more so in Great Britain, France, Germany, and the
United States; and less so in Italy and, especially,
Spain. We tease out major differences in types of
wealth holdings in single- and dual-parent households.
We find that the single-parent wealth deficit is not
explained by differences in age or number of children
but that it is influenced by education, income, home-
ownership, and receipt of intergenerational transfers.
We discuss the policy implications of our findings, both
in terms of how single parents are treated in social
protection and taxation systems and, more broadly, in
the supports they require if they are to overcome bar-
riers to accumulating wealth.
Keywords: wealth; single parents; intergenerational
transmission; homeownership; savings
Household wealth plays a key role in coping
with economic shocks and with the inter-
generational transmission of advantage and
disadvantage. The vulnerability associated with
having little or no property wealth or financial
Salvatore Morelli is an Assistant Professor in public
economics at the Law Department at the University of
Roma Tre (Rome), a senior scholar and director of the
GC Wealth Project at the Stone Center on Socio-
Economic Inequality at the Graduate Center of the
City University of New York, and a research associate
at the Centre for Studies of Economics and Finance at
the University of Naples, Federico II.
Brian Nolan is a Professor of social policy and director of
the Employment, Equity, and Growth Programme at the
Department of Social Policy and Intervention and the
Institute for New Economic Thinking and Senior
Research Fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford.
buffer to fall back on is particularly salient in a major economic shock such as the
ongoing COVID-19 pandemic crisis (Kuypers etal. forthcoming). The long-term
implications of parental wealth or its absence for progress through the education
system and the labor market are also now better understood (Pfeffer 2018).
Among the many challenges faced by single parents, the presence of a wealth
deficit among them (compared with dual-parent households) would represent a
major additional disadvantage, one that would carry serious implications for cur-
rent living standards and economic security and for the well-being of their chil-
dren and opportunities that are available to them.
Some single-country studies have suggested that single parents do indeed face
a wealth deficit compared to dual-parent households (e.g., Lersch etal. 2021), as
do the few studies that have adopted a comparative perspective (Sierminska,
Smeeding, and Allegrezza 2013; Sierminska 2018). Here we probe the household
wealth situation of single-parent households in six rich countries and highlight
insights into the processes that might contribute to household wealth differen-
tials. We employ data from high-quality household wealth surveys to compare the
wealth of single- versus dual-parent households in France, Germany, Great
Britain, Italy, Spain, and the United States, countries spanning a variety of eco-
nomic trajectories, institutional contexts, and welfare regimes. We then disag-
gregate wealth into its main components and explore the prevalence of key forms
of household wealth, including principal residence (for homeowners), other
property, physical wealth, and financial or business assets: these analyses show
where the major divergences between single- and dual-parent households arise.
We then probe the relationship between the wealth penalty of single-parent
households and a set of relevant sociodemographic characteristics including age,
number of children, and education. Finally, we assess the role played by direct
transfers of wealth from the previous generation as potentially explanatory of
wealth gaps among single- versus dual-parent families: we do this for both higher-
income and lower-income households, exploiting data on receipt of inheritances
and gifts also obtained in these surveys. The policy implications of the findings
are then addressed, both with respect to how single parents are treated in social
protection and taxation systems and more broadly in terms of the supports they
require to overcome the barriers to accumulating some wealth.
In brief, our key findings are that single-parent households are, on average,
disadvantaged in terms of current wealth levels and that this disadvantage is suf-
ficiently substantial to have major implications for the children growing up in
those households. This is due to both the reduced likelihood of single parents
Juan C. Palomino is a postdoctoral research officer at the Department of Social Policy and
Intervention and the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) at the University of Oxford,
and Research Scholar in the Department of Economics at the Complutense University Madrid.
Philippe Van Kerm is a Professor of social inequality and social policy at the University of
Luxembourg on a joint appointment with the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic
Research (LISER), and is a fellow at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (University
of Essex), the Institute for New Economic Thinking (University of Oxford), the Stone Center
on Socio-Economic Inequality (City University of New York), and ZEW Mannheim.

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