30 May
Social Investment

A Paradox of Activating Single Parents

A recent paper in Social Politics by Jaehrling, Kalina, & Mesaros (2015) presents an enigmatic result: despite employment growth among single-parent families, their poverty risks increased or remained stable. This was found for Sweden, France, Germany and the United Kingdom: four countries that represent diverse welfare states. It means that for these families their employment did not benefit them in terms of steering or staying out of poverty, or that any benefit they had from employment was cancelled out by other developments. This finding is particularly relevant, given the increasing important EU policy makers (and beyond) adhere to employment as an instrument against poverty.

The reasoning by Jaehrling et al. is quite similar to that in a pair of papers I published last year with Laurie C. Maldonado. In Community, Work & Family we showed how paid leave facilitates the employment of particularly single parents. Yet, despite their employment, single-parent families faced higher poverty risks compared to two-parent families. In the Belgian Review of Social Security we argued that the increased emphasis in policies ‘preparing’ individuals for economic independence through activation may come at the expense of redistributive policies ‘repairing’ adverse economic outcomes such as poverty. We raised the concern that it remains to be seen whether employment is a sufficient strategy against poverty, particularly for single parents.

Jaehrling et al. seem to empirically confirm our concern, discussing the decreased adequacy of social assistance, among other redistributive policies. Moreover, they add several very interesting explanations to how it is possible that single-parents’ employment growth did not reduce their poverty risks. I conclude by mentioning three:

  • Selection: It could be that single parents represent an increasingly disadvantaged group in terms of employment and poverty. This would be the case, for instance, of single parenthood would become increasingly concentrated among the lower educated, who have less earnings potential to stay out of poverty by means of employment. However, this explanation found little support. It was found that in Sweden an increasing percentage of single-parents has multiple young children in the household.
  • Precarious Employment: With single parent families being overrepresented among jobs with little stability, fixed-term contracts, and lower wages, they find more difficulties in making ends meet based on employment alone.
  • Competition with dual-earner families: while single parents families, mostly headed by mothers, were front-runners in terms of maternal / women’s employment, this is no longer the case. With the overall trends towards higher female labour force participation rates, this means that single-parent families increasingly have to compete with dual-earner families. With their double incomes, these dual earners drive up the median incomes, and therefore the income-levels that are regarded necessary to stay out of (relative) poverty. Income levels that are increasingly difficult to reach for single earners.


Jaehrling, K., Kalina, T., & Mesaros, L. (2015). A Paradox of Activation Strategies: Why Increasing Labour Market Participation among Single Mothers Failed to Bring Down Poverty Rates. Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society, 22(1), 86–110.

Maldonado, L. C., & Nieuwenhuis, R. (2015). Family policies and single parent poverty in 18 OECD countries, 1978–2008. Community, Work and Family, 18(4), 395–415.

Nieuwenhuis, R., & Maldonado, L. C. (2015). Prepare Versus Repair? Combining Parental Leave and Family Allowances for Social Investment Against Single-Parent Poverty. Belgian Review of Social Security, (1), 1–10.

One comment on “A Paradox of Activating Single Parents

  • Your last 3 points are spot on with my life experience, its much like watching the light at end of a tunnel getting smaller and smaller every day.

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