The Ripon Forum

Volume 50, No. 2

April 2016

The Rise of Single Parents

By on April 17, 2016

Family structures in America are rapidly changing,
and conservative policy needs to keep up.


Abby McCloskey-Headshot %283%29Since 1960, the share of households headed by single parents in the United States has more than tripled.  According to the Pew Research Center, 25 percent of households (8.6 million) were headed by single mothers in 2011.  Another 6 percent of households (2.6 million) were headed by single fathers.

Single parent households face a unique set of economic challenges. According to Pew, single parents tend to be younger and less educated, and earn lower incomes than married parents.  As such, economic opportunity can be harder to come by. An AEI study by Robert L. Lerman and W. Bradford Wilcox found that growth in median income for families with children would be 44 percent higher today if the 1980s level of married parenthood had persisted.

The economic disadvantages are particularly acute for single mothers, 43 percent of whom live at or below the poverty line, compared to 24 percent of single fathers and 10 percent of married parents.

Conservatives have been relatively slow to adapt their policy agenda to this major socioeconomic shift. Many conservatives have continued to exclusively focus on economic growth, while overlooking the specific economic challenges that single parents face. Others have continued to promote marriage and talk about its many economic benefits, which while also important, doesn’t help single parents who aren’t in a position to get married.

Policymakers need to meet single parents where they are at, and put forward policies that address the unique challenges of working and raising children alone.

Policymakers need to meet single parents where they are at, and put forward policies that address the unique challenges of working and raising children alone.

First, we need to reduce the barriers to employment for single parents, one of the biggest of which is high childcare costs. Childcare costs increased by 70 percent from 1985 to 2011, in 2011 dollars. For single parents living in poverty, childcare costs can consume up to 30 percent (or more) of their monthly income, driving down their incentive to work.

Economists have consistently found that reducing childcare costs has positive effects on employment.  For example, David Blau and Erdal Tekin found that childcare subsidies resulted in a 13 percentage point increase in the likelihood of employment for impoverished single mothers.

There are a number of ways that conservatives can reduce childcare costs for families, such as: regulatory relief for childcare workers and facilities, which are subject to numerous restrictions that increase costs with little or no impact on quality; streamlining the existing government maze of childcare credits to make them easier to access and indexing them to childcare cost inflation; and, allowing single parents in school to be eligible for childcare assistance so that they can learn work-related skills.

Second, we need to encourage low-wage workers to stay in the workforce. There has been a downward pressure on wages for low-skilled employees as the result of globalization and technological change. Low wages discourage work and make it difficult to provide for a family on a single income. Single parents are especially vulnerable to this trend since they tend to have less education than married parents.

It’s important for workers to stay in the workforce, even when wages are low, so that they can continue to acquire work-related skills and not lose future earnings potential. One way to do this is by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which functions as a wage subsidy for low-wage workers.

Economists have consistently found that the EITC contributes to better economic outcomes for children and increased parents’ workforce participation. One study found that the EITC alone explained up to 60% of the increase in single mothers’ employment between 1984 and 1996. A larger EITC payment would also encourage noncustodial parents to work and improve their ability to provide child support.

Third, we need to create a culture of opportunity for the children of single parents.  The economic impact of single parenthood persists across time. Harvard economist Raj Chetty concluded that single motherhood was the most significant correlate to low upward mobility across generations – much more than educational levels, segregation, or income inequality.

By investing in programs that encourage work, education, and earned success, we can help single parent households achieve economic independence.

The eclipse of economic opportunity starts early. Since single parent households tend to have less income than their married counterparts, their children tend to grow up in poorer neighborhoods with worse performing schools. This sets them on a weaker economic trajectory from an early age. In two recent papers, AEI’s Aparna Mathur and I find that school choice can help improve students’ educational outcomes and begin to break the cycle of poverty.

Some of these programs would require government spending. Funding could come from a broader overhaul of our existing welfare system, which is failing our poorest families.  In a recent study, economist Robert Moffitt found that the poorest single parent families actually receive 35 percent less in government transfers than they did three decades ago, while spending for the disabled and elderly has increased.  Moreover, the safety net has too often trapped single parents in poverty and dependence.

We can do better. By investing in programs that encourage work, education, and earned success, we can help single parent households achieve economic independence. The results would be especially powerful if combined with traditional conservative pro-growth policies, which provide the foundation for good-paying jobs and economic opportunity.

The rise of single parent households in America is one of the largest socioeconomic changes of our time. Conservative policymakers should accept the challenge and do all they can to help single parents and their children succeed.

Abby McCloskey is an economist and the founder of McCloskey Policy LLC.  She previously served as an advisor for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, and as Program Director of Economic Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.


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