Single Parenthood: Current Facts and Potential Impact of COVID-19
Kamila Kolpashnikova, Muzhi Zhou, Ekaterina Hertog, and Man-Yee Kan
University of Oxford
The COVID-19 outbreak engendered an unprecedented global crisis. Many countries have introduced emergency measures such as school closures, working from home, and enforced social distancing to control the spread of the virus. However, the structures of the existing labour market, as well as the emergency measures, will affect single parents in their ability to weather this crisis, particularly will exacerbate the structural challenges faced by single mothers. Across the world, over 13% of women are single parents (Crabtree & Kluch, 2020). The market structures already pushed single mothers into occupations that cannot be readily performed from home. Even if single parents are provided with the option to telecommute, the closure of nurseries and schools further prevents them from performing their job responsibilities. Although the extent of the consequences of the pandemic is still unclear, the understanding of the existing social structures can help us foresee, and hopefully, prevent, a severe economic hardship among single parents worldwide.
The basic facts
In 2016, 320 million, or over 14%, of children around the world are living in single-parent households (Chamie, 2016). Within OECD countries, about 17% of children between 0 and 17 years of age live with only one parent (OECD, 2020). In some countries, for instance, in Latvia, the proportion is considerably higher and reaches almost 28% (see Figure 1).
Figure 1 reveals that, on the one hand, more traditional and conservative countries, where marriage is a social norm, such as Turkey and Greece, have a lower proportion of young children living with only one parent. On the other hand, in countries, where divorce is common, for instance in Anglophone countries, such as the United Kingdom, United States, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia, the proportions of children living with a single parent are higher than the OECD average.
Moreover, most single-parent households are headed by single mothers. For example, in the UK in 2019, there were around 2 million single parents with dependent children, and 86% of these single parents were women (ONS, 2019). In the US, the figure is estimated to reach 84% (2012 PISA data). Across OECD countries, 85% of single parents are single mothers, ranging from 92% in Estonia to 78% in Norway, and 65% in Hungry based on data from the 2010 Luxembourg Income Study (Maldonado & Nieuwenhuis, 2014).
Figure 1 Proportion of Children with One Parent, 2018 or the latest reported year. OECD Family Database.
The socio-economic status of single-parent families
In many societies, single parents are already socioeconomically disadvantaged, pushed by the social systems into economic hardship, health inequities, and social stigma because these systems favour traditional families with working men supported by housewives. Single parents find themselves in a reality where they are the least likely to be employed, have the lowest income, and often already accumulate disadvantage before childbirth (Gregg et al., 2009).
Compared to two-parent families, single-parent families often have lower household income and more likely to be pushed into poverty by the existing market structures disadvantaging single parents (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). Based on the 2010 before-tax income, the poverty rates among single-parent families in OECD countries ranged from 26% in Hungry to 61% in Ireland, whereas the OECD average was 42% (Maldonado & Nieuwenhuis, 2015).
The OECD data reported a high proportion of child poverty in countries of the global south, such as China, South Africa, and Brazil. Among the OECD countries, the United States and the Southern European countries reported the highest proportion of child poverty. On average, 15% of all children in countries reported in Figure 2 live below the poverty level. These numbers are to increase in most countries in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak if countries fail to act now.
The Eurostat’s report, Supporting Lone Parents and Their Children in Europe (Bernardi & Mortelmans, 2018), concluded that almost half of all single parents (the majority of which are women) were at higher risk of poverty and social exclusion—the situation, which will most certainly exacerbate in 2020. For instance, in the UK of pre-crisis era, two-thirds of homeless families with children were single-parent families, whereas the majority of homeless were women (67%), as reported by the Women's Budget Group (2020). These single-parent households are also least likely to own a house (less than 20%) and subject to a tight income budget to cover monthly rent (Zhou et al., 2020).
Figure 2 Child Poverty. OECD Family Database.
The already dire situation of single parents exacerbates in the face of the coronavirus outbreak. Most single parents are likely to experience tremendous challenges to keep their employment and provide child-care when nurseries and schools are closed, and there are fewer people to rely on for help with child-care. This means that 14% of children worldwide are at risk of poverty at the end of the crisis. The increasing child poverty is likely to exacerbate already apparent social divides in most societies.
As a concomitant issue, children in single-parent households are more likely to experience less support to keep up with studies. Research about educational inequality has shown that the educational achievement gap of children from different socio-economic backgrounds increases during non-school days (Alexander et al., 2007; Kim, 2004). More educated or more affluent parents can provide organized and educational activities for their children (Dotti Sani & Treas, 2016; Gracia & Ghysels, 2017). The gap between single and two-parent households in the amount of parental time will widen if there are no available school and child-care services for a prolonged time. The period of school-closure and home-education would result in a higher gap in educational attainment in the later years, and, consequentially, lower probability of intergenerational mobility.
Why are single-parent heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
The existing socio-economic structures will exacerbate the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 pandemic on single-parent families for two major reasons.
The first reason is the extant social system that disadvantages single-parent families. The nature of the labour market pushed many single parents into low-income occupations, which are more likely to have higher risks of job loss or contracting the virus. These risks precipitate the risks of poverty and unemployment among single parents during the pandemic. Even when employed, single parents are more likely to be working in occupations that do not allow working from home, more likely to be precarious, or force them to work in the front-lines with much higher risks of exposure to the virus.
The second reason is the lack of alternatives for child-care associated with the lockdown measures adopted by almost all countries in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. For single parents who rely on family members, friends, and neighbours for child-care, the social-distancing policy will limit their safety net substantially for child-care support. Since single parents reply on schools and nurseries for child-care, the shut-down of schools, public and private child-care services would again have a disproportionately dire effect on single parents who are less likely to share child-care with their former partners at home. The critical functions of family members and child-care services to maintain employment and assist the development of children, on which single parents relied before the crisis, are absent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the pandemic wreaks chaos on our lives, the societal structures, which already disadvantaged single parents before, are likely to affect them disproportionately during and after the crisis. The fragile balance between worker and carer roles in the lives of many single parents is shattered, and they need public support now more than ever.
Countries with a relatively higher proportion of single-parent households, with limited income distribution mechanisms to support these families, and with less regulated labour markets where family-unfriendly culture are likely to endure substantial negative impacts following COVID-19 pandemic.
Alexander, K. L., Entwisle, D. R., & Olson, L. S. (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review, 72(2), 167-180.
Bernardi, L., & Mortelmans, D. (2018). Supporting Lone Parents and Their Children in Europe (Population & Policy Compact, Issue.
Chamie, J. (2016). 320 Million Children in Single-Parent Families. Global Issues, https://www.globalissues.org/news/2016/2010/2015/22568.
Crabtree, S., & Kluch, S. (2020). How Many Women Worldwide Are Single Moms? GALLUP.
Dotti Sani, G. M., & Treas, J. (2016). Educational gradients in parents' child‐care time across countries, 1965–2012. Journal of Marriage and Family, 78(4), 1083-1096.
Gracia, P., & Ghysels, J. (2017). Educational inequalities in parental care time: Cross-national evidence from Belgium, Denmark, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Social Science Research, 63, 166-180.
Gregg, P., Harkness, S., & Smith, S. (2009). Welfare Reform and Lone Parents in the UK. The Economic Journal, 119(535), F38-F65. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0297.2008.02226.x
Kim, J. (2004). Summer reading and the ethnic achievement gap. Journal of education for students placed at risk, 9(2), 169-188.
Maldonado, L. C., & Nieuwenhuis, R. (2014). Family Policies and Single Parent Povertyin 18 OECD Countries, 1978-2008.
Maldonado, L. C., & Nieuwenhuis, R. (2015). Single-Parent Family Poverty in 24 OECD Countries: A Focus on Market and Redistribution Strategies.
McLanahan, S., & Sandefur, G. (1994). Growing Up with a Single Parent. What Hurts, What Helps. Harvard University Press.
OECD. (2020). OECD Family Database. http://www.oecd.org/social/family/database.htm
ONS. (2019). Families and households. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/datasets/familiesandhouseholdsfamiliesandhouseholds
Women's Budget Group. (2020). Crises Collide: Women and Covid-19.
Zhou, M., Hertog, E., Kolpashnikova, K., & Kan, M. Y. (2020). Lockdown in the UK: Why women and especially single mothers are disadvantaged.