If you’re a kid being raised by a single mother who’s looking to make more when you grow up, the odds are against you. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
On the whole, the chances of a low-income child being able to make more than her parents is lower in places that have higher shares of single mothers. But that’s not the case in every state. California, Oregon, and Washington have relatively high shares of single mothers but also give children good odds of climbing into a higher income bracket, according to a new analysis from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. The same is true for Rhode Island, Maine, and Vermont.
The difference may be their public policies: all of these states had parental leave before the national Family and Medical Leave Act guaranteed everyone 12 unpaid weeks off for a new child.
“This analysis is far from definitive,” the author notes, “but it does imply that these kinds of pro-family policies can improve mobility in the absence of a high rate of two-parent households.”
On the other hand, some areas, such as parts of the Rust Belt, have lower chances of economic mobility for future generations than would be expected given their lower share of single mothers. These states don’t tend to have family-friendly policies:
The same holds true when you zoom out to compare different countries. For most, the share of children living with single mothers is only weakly associated with lower chances of those children moving up the economic ladder. The United States, on the other hand, is an outlier.
“This is almost certainly not an indication that single-parent households are better for mobility,” the report says, “but instead an indication that what matter are other differences between countries, such as public policy.”
All of the other countries guarantee mothers can take paid maternity leave — in fact the U.S. is just one of three countries among 178 that doesn’t. These countries also guarantee that workers can take paid sick days to be with their children if they fall ill.
Some other challenges facing American children of single mothers disappear in other countries, too. A disproportionate number of single mothers and their children live in poverty here in the U.S., and it would look the same in Finland, Norway, and Sweden if taxes and public programs weren’t taken into account. But with those factored in, the poverty rates for single mothers and their kids drop dramatically in those countries, while it’s little changed here.
These policies are easy to pinpoint. In 2012, the U.S. was rated the worst country for single mothers out of 18 developed ones because of the lack of paid family leave, a stingy income support system, a long wait for early childhood education to start, low health insurance rates, and a low rate of receiving child support. Cash assistance reaches less than a third of the families with children who qualify and the benefits are mostly worth less now than in 1996. Just 4 percent of three-year-olds and 28 percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in preschool.
America’s working single mothers are also disproportionately likely to still be poor. The share of single parents working low-wage jobs is higher here than in any of those other 18 developed countries.