Journal Issue: Long-Term Outcomes Of Early Childhood Programs Volume 5 Number 3 Winter 1995
A Common Policy Challenge: Single Women with Young Children
A growing proportion of children in all three countries live in mother-only families, and the relation between child care and the employment prospects of these particular parents is a second pressing policy issue. Data from the national surveys discussed throughout this article show that 6% of Dutch preschoolers, 11% of Swedish preschoolers, and 28% of U.S. preschool children (whose mothers were relatively young) lived in single-mother homes.
To women who find themselves solely responsible both for earning an income and for bringing up children, how the government deals with the combination of paid work and child care is a matter of vital importance. Social welfare systems based on the idea that motherhood is a full-time job are less likely to meet the employment-related needs of single mothers than are those based on the idea that mothers are likely to be working women. In the first instance, the government may choose to provide income supports that permit the single mother to remain at home; the latter system would more likely provide high-quality subsidized child care to help her manage employment.
Indeed, employment rates among single mothers vary across the three countries. In Sweden and the United States, the rates of employment among single mothers are very similar to those among women who are married or cohabiting.26 In Sweden, 89% of both groups are employed; and in the United States the figure is 66% for both single and married mothers. In the Netherlands, only 24% of single mothers are employed, compared with 30% of their married counterparts. Single mothers in these countries differ as well in their incomes and the government support they receive. Fully 53% of single mothers in the United States live below the poverty line, compared with only 8% in the Netherlands and 6% in Sweden.26
How can these differences be explained? Single mothers in the Netherlands are the least likely to be employed, yet relatively few of them are poor because their incomes are supported by government subsidies. There, the single-parent family structure is seen as anomolous: the mother is fully occupied within the home, but the family lacks a breadwinner. The government, therefore, acts as breadwinner and provides a minimum income to the family, although the Dutch government is beginning to encourage single women with children ages five and over to participate in the labor market to reduce the demand for government assistance.
Swedish single mothers receive some government subsidies, such as rent allowances, but few of them are poor and most are employed. Earnings typically make up more than 60% of their total income.27 Because conscious government policies facilitate the employment of mothers, if a Swedish woman with young children finds herself alone, she is likely already to have an earned income and access to child care. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Swedish policies assume that every married woman with children is a potential single mother, and these policies have considerably reduced the chances that single mothers will find themselves below the poverty line.
By contrast, American single mothers seldom manage to earn enough to rise out of poverty and—unlike their counterparts in the Netherlands—they are not helped to escape poverty by government support. Jobs permitting them to combine work and child care do not pay well, and the welfare benefits provided to those who do not work are meager. For many American women, marriage to an employed partner is the best way of escaping poverty.28
As these examples show, national policies on single mothers have incorporated ideas of motherhood and paid employment in different ways. The growth in marital and partnership breakdowns presents particularly serious problems in the United States, where around one-third of mothers bring up their children alone at least for a time.29 (See also the article by Hernandez in this journal issue.) Providing supports that encourage single mothers to participate in the labor market can help those women and their families to escape the poverty that many confront in the United States, or the dependency on welfare payments that they face in the Netherlands. Child care plays a vital role in making that employment possible.