AEI’s Aparna Mathur recently wrote an article, “The mysterious and alarming rise of single parenthood in America,” examining the income gap between single and married parents — particularly mothers — and its repercussions. Over 80% of moms with spouses are employed, and only 60% of single moms have full-time jobs. In addition, the average incomes of single moms in 2012 were just 60% of married moms.
Here, Mathur answers 5 questions on her article.
1.) Nick Schulz, in his book Home Economics, suggests that one reason why the number of single mothers has been on the rise is women’s increased role in the workplace: they are now able to provide more economic stability for their children without being married. Do you think that’s true? What else might explain the dramatic increase in single-parent families?
Mathur: I think that one of the biggest reasons for the increase in single mothers (and single parenting in general) is that the financial incentive to work has increased over the years with the expansion of programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit. Single mothers have typically received more than 50% of the EITC dollars over the years. So for example, a single mother with earned income that is not in the taxable range can still receive more than $3000 in EITC tax credits. Numerous studies have shown that this has greatly expanded their labor supply and ability to support children. In addition, the EITC does not count towards earned income, and so does not make these women ineligible to receive other benefits such as the AFDC and the Food Stamp benefits.
Further, Medicaid coverage has been extended to children living in families with incomes below 100% of the poverty line. Other federal programs have subsidized the cost of child care, such as the Dependent Care Tax Credit. A number of research papers in economics have documented that the availability of subsidized child care is also an important development in getting single mothers to work.
2. Do you think that this single-parent trajectory we’ve seen the last several decades will continue upwards, or is it slowing down?
Mathur: This trend is likely to continue given that since the 1960s there has been a rise in not just single-mom families but also single-dad families. Single parents have more than tripled as a share of American households since 1960. This is a function of not just the tax and transfer system and the associated incentives cited above, but also changes in society. According to the Pew Center, there has been a marked increase in non-marital births. Divorce rates have tended to remain higher than they were in the 1960s and 1970s, and legislative changes have led to more opportunities for fathers to gain at least partial custody of children. As a result, it is likely that the incentive for married couples to stay together for the sake of the children may not be that strong.
3. Why do single fathers earn more than single mothers?
Mathur: As mentioned in the article, a big reason for this is that single dads are more likely to work in standard full-time jobs than single moms. This may be made possible by the fact that single dads often co-habit with a non-marital partner. According to Pew, more than 40% of single fathers live with a partner. This may enable them to share child care responsibilities with the partner rather than stay home or seek non-standard work. Single father households are more likely to be older, and white relative to single mothers. Finally, occupational differences between men and women may also explain some of the earnings differences.
4. Do you think giving single parents childcare subsidies will close the earnings gap somewhat between single and married mothers by allowing them to work jobs with more standard schedules and potentially better pay? Should single parents be given childcare subsidies?
Mathur: As mentioned earlier, there already exist different types of subsidies and credits for families with dependent children. While this may make it easier for single parents to provide their children with material comforts and to take up standard full-time jobs, the differences between married and single mothers are also in terms of their education levels and ability to obtain high wage jobs. Single mothers tend to be less educated, younger and more likely to be Black or Hispanic. Married mothers tend to be older and are disproportionately white and college educated. Therefore, we also need to address educational gap differences in order to strive towards some parity in earnings.
5. The US currently does not mandate paid maternity leave. If it did, what do you think the effect would be on single parents?
Mathur: Unpaid maternity leave can have significantly adverse impacts on single parents in particular who are dependent on their incomes to sustain their family. The medical costs associated with having a baby as well as good pediatric care can often prove to be very expensive especially for single mothers in low income, poor benefits jobs. Thus allowing for paid maternity leave would enable them to seek good quality care for themselves and for their child during the maternity leave, rather than forcing them to make a choice between their career and their children for the sake of meeting financial needs.