Policy, Not Parenting, Keeps Single Mothers And Their Children Living In Poverty


Welfare Reform 3x2


While a disproportionate number of single mothers and their children live in poverty in the United States, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Matt Bruenig at Demos looked at various past studies that have found that family composition can’t account for the huge difference in American child poverty rates and those of other countries. But what can help account for the child poverty rate that gives the U.S. a 34 out of 35 ranking on child poverty is the tax system and the social safety net.

Before taxes and transfers, or public programs, the poverty rate for children who live with single mothers looks similar to Finland, Norway, and Sweden, but with those cushions taken into account, the difference is dramatic:

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This is not just true for single mothers, however. Poverty rates are higher here for all family types than these other countries once taxes and benefits are taken into account:

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What are these policies? Legal Momentum found in a 2012 report that single parents in the U.S. are the worst off among 17 other developed countries thanks to the stingiest income support system, the lack of paid family leave, the long wait for early childhood education to begin, a high rate of lacking health care, and a low rate of receiving child support. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, for example, reaches less than a third of poor families with children and the benefits are nearly all worth less now than in 1996. Spending on child care assistance has hit a decade low. Food stamps have been reduced and cut.

The conservative solution for single mothers who disproportionately live in poverty, however, has been to promote marriage. But that rarely helps. More than two-thirds of single mothers who later marry end up divorced by the time they’re ages 35 to 44, which leaves them worse off financially than if they had just stayed on their own. And those marriages that do last tend to be unstable and low-quality.

On top of those findings, government programs aimed at marriage promotion have spent lots of money but produced few results. The government has spent $800 million on the Healthy Marriage Initiative, which includes marriage education, relationship skills training, mentoring, public advertising, and high school programs. But since it began, the country’s marriage rate has continued to decline and the divorce rate hasn’t changed. State-level spending also “did not have a significant association with state marriage rates,” a report on the program notes.

The Building Strong Families program spent $11,000 per couple on relationship skills and support services, but three years later it had no effect on whether couples got married or even stayed together. Those in the program were actually less likely to stick it out or cohabitate than those in a control group, and fathers in the program were less likely to be involved with their children.

The Supporting Healthy Marriage relationship skills education program with support services and supplemental activities spent an average $9,100 per couple, but a report found that it didn’t lead to more couples staying together. The marriage rate for couples in the program was identical to those in a control group, and the program had little impact on parenting or children’s well-being.