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5 Top Takeaways from a New Publication and a Brookings Webinar on Single-Parent Families

Although we’re back to attending in-person events with our Early Learning Nation Studio, we’ll continue to recap top virtual conversations, town halls, webinars and virtual events from the Early Learning field. Stay tuned for more Top Takeaways, and visit our Early Learning Nation channel on YouTube for interviews with leaders from education, child development research, business, politics and more.


Near­ly 24 mil­lion U.S. chil­dren live in sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies, and they are far more likely to experience food and housing insecurity, and other hazards of poverty. Single-Parent Families and Public Policy: Evidence from High-Income Countries, in the Fall 2022 volume of the ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, delves into the policy possibilities for these families. On December 1, the Brookings Institution held a webinar featuring many of the publication’s contributors.

“Child poverty in rich countries is especially compelling,” editors Janet C. Gornick, Laurie C. Maldonado and Amanda Sheely assert in their introduction, “because it is rooted not so much in scarce aggregate resources but mainly in distributional arrangements, both private and public.”

Here are 5 Top Takeaways:

1. Compared to other high-income countries, the United States does little to support single-parent families. The consequences are dire, especially for the youngest children, whose brains are undergoing such rapid development. “Adequate poverty relief doesn’t come cheaply,” said Ive Marx, professor at the University of Antwerp and director of the Centre for Social Policy, likening the layers of support to a policy lasagna. “It takes universal benefits and targeted supplements to keep families out of poverty.”

Zachary Parolin, senior fellow at the Center on Poverty & Social Policy at Columbia University, presented findings that showed volatility in poverty rates during the pandemic but also ways that federal stimulus and relief smoothed it out. Thomas Biegert from the London School of Economics looked at child care benefits, dispelling the myth that generous benefits are a disincentive to work.

👉 U.S. has world’s highest rate of children living in single-parent households (Pew)

2. No single-parent families are alike. They vary by age, race, socioeconomic status and more. Keeping the heterogeneity of these families in mind should prevent academics and policymakers alike from making generalizations. “Despite the seemingly strong relationship between single motherhood prevalence and racial inequality in child poverty in the United States, a growing literature casts doubt on the explanatory power of family structure,” University of Pennsylvania sociologist Regina S. Baker writes in her essay.

3. Promoting marriage remains a risky “proposition.” University of Maryland economist Melissa Kearney noted appreciatively that the ANNALS volume steers clear of culture war arguments (see video below to relive 1992, if you dare) and advocated for the continued separation of benefits from parental marital status. “Focusing on marriage promotion misses the point,” said Baker, observing that family structure operates differently for different racial and ethnic groups.

Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow at Brookings—whose 2014 book Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage underscored the importance of choosing to become parents—sounded the alarm on 2022’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision. (Read more.)

👉 Why Family Structure and Stability Matter for Children (Institute for Family Studies)

4. “You can learn about effective policy from studying other countries,” stated Maldonado. Calling the ANNALS publication a goldmine for policymakers, Gornick enumerated such factors as benefit level, duration and financing as the variables that should be studied.

And yet, in so many ways, the United States isn’t the same as other rich countries. Baker noted that poverty risk factors such as health problems and unemployment disproportionately affect Black and Latino mothers whether they are married or not.

Eric Rodriguez of Unidos US highlighted the particular nature of race in this country and the 4.4 million U.S. kids living with undocumented parents.

5. There’s more than one kind of child support. Of the 10.5 million single-parent households in the U.S., nearly three-quarters are mother-only. An analysis comparing child support across countries recommends guaranteeing a modest amount of public support to single-parent households. “Many of the policy dilemmas we saw are common across high-income countries,” said Rutgers University professor Laura Cuesta, one of the paper’s coauthors, lamenting the singular lack of robust support here.

An essay on “non-resident fathers” emphasizes the value of social involvement and provision of in-kind support. “Nonresident fathers are more than a check,” said Kearney. “They can be part of the children’s lives.”

The panelists speculated on the likelihood of policy shifts in the coming years. While perceiving political support for many progressive ideas, Doug Besharov (University of Maryland School of Public Policy) said, “The sale hasn’t been made yet.” Taking the long view, Irwin Garfinkel (Columbia University School of Social Work), predicted, “These ideas will become politically feasible at some point, because they’re good policy.”

Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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