Magazine article The American Prospect

Family-Friendly Europe: Decent Wages and Generous Social Supports to Reconcile Work and Parenting Add Up to a Family Policy That's Smarter Than Marriage Promotion. (Cover Story)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Family-Friendly Europe: Decent Wages and Generous Social Supports to Reconcile Work and Parenting Add Up to a Family Policy That's Smarter Than Marriage Promotion. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

THE BELIEF THAT SINGLE MOTHERHOOD IS THE preeminent cause of poverty in America has become a bipartisan cliche. The welfare reform enacted in 1996 was designed, among other things, to discourage single parenthood and to promote marriage. Yet a look at the experiences and policies of other nations suggests a more complex story behind the causes of and cure for poverty. Evidence from Europe shows that the remedy is to increase the economic resources available to low-income families--through better-paying jobs that relieve poverty directly and social supports that reconcile paid employment with reliable parenting.

U.S. women, men, and children experience significantly higher levels of economic hardship than their counterparts in other affluent Western nations. For example, a common cross-national measure of poverty considers households poor when their family income falls below 50 percent of their country's median income. By this measure, according to the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS), in the mid-1990s more than 45 percent of U.S. single mothers were poor; by comparison, single mothers' poverty rates were 13 percent in France and around 5 percent in Sweden and Finland. Overall, U.S. women's poverty rates were 15 percent--about 4 to 5 percentage points higher than those of Canadian, Australian, and British women, 8 to 9 percentage points higher than in France or the Netherlands, and 12 to 13 percentage points higher than in Sweden and Finland.

Because single mothers have higher poverty rates compared with other women, a higher percentage of single motherhood, all else being equal, would raise poverty rates among women generally. Yet recent research using the LIS shows that even if U.S. women had extremely low rates of single motherhood, their poverty rates would still be higher than those of women in other affluent Western nations. Marriage, therefore, is no panacea. Rather, the high poverty rate of U.S. women is due to two main factors: the prevalence of poverty-wage jobs and the failure of the government's welfare programs to pull its citizens out of poverty.

As the table on page 61 shows, compared with their Western counterparts, U.S. women and single mothers are among the most likely to earn poverty-level wages. When working full-time (at least 35 hours a week), about one-third of U.S. women and more than 40 percent of U.S. single mothers earn wages too low to free their families from poverty. In other Western nations, particularly Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, working full time pulls the vast majority of women (including single mothers) and their families above the poverty line.


But wages are only part of the story. In many countries, citizens receive generous subsidies from the government to help pay the costs of raising children and to protect workers from labor-market vicissitudes. The United States is notorious for its paltry welfare state, which is by far the least effective among industrialized democracies in reducing poverty rates. In the mid-1990s, the U.S. system of social transfers and tax credits reduced women's poverty rates by about 15 percent, while comparable welfare programs in other affluent Western nations reduced women's poverty by anywhere from 40 percent (in Canada) to 88 percent (in Sweden).

Although the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is increasingly effective in reducing poverty among low-income families in this country, total social-assistance payments in the United States have decreased over time. The main social-aid program for single parents, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), provides monthly payments that often fail to cover even the cost of rent and utilities. In 2000 the majority of states provided maximum payments between $50 and $150 per month for a family of three.

IF THE UNITED STATES IS TO TAKE SERIOUSLY THE TASK of reducing economic hardship among single-parent families, we must stop focusing on marriage and instead rethink our existing labor-market and welfare-state programs. …

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