Lone Mothers in Affluent Nations Research Paper

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Lone mother families are formed by death, divorce, or by a woman having a child outside marriage. Indeed, until the 1970s, there was no single term to describe these families. ‘Lone mother’ is now the most common term used in English to refer to them, although ‘single mother’ is still often used. However, this carries specific connotations in respect of marital status, referring as it does only to unmarried mothers, and thus strictly speaking does not cover all types of lone mother family. Much of the international data refers to ‘one-parent’ or ‘lone-parent’ families, but only a relatively small percentage (usually below 10 percent) of lone-parent families are headed by men. Countries also define lone mother families differently, for example, in regard to the age under which a child is considered to be dependent, and this makes crossnational comparisons of data difficult.

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Lone motherhood is not, of course, new. For example, the UK experienced a sharp increase in unmarried motherhood during the 1840s, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, and at the beginning of the twentieth century, as many families were broken by death as were broken by divorce in the early 1970s. However, widowhood as a pathway into lone motherhood has declined whereas divorce and unmarried motherhood have increased. As lone mother families have become both more numerous and more visible in western countries, so they have also become an issue for public policy (McLanahan and Sandefur 1994), although only in the Englishspeaking countries have they come to be regarded as something of a social threat as well as a social problem.

1. The Changing Demography of Lone Motherhood

There is only a limited amount of statistical information on the proportions of families with dependent children that are lone-parent families. Table 1 shows the position of 12 member states of the European Union at the beginning of the 1980s and the 1990s, together with data for the US. Even within Western Europe there is a good deal of variation, with high proportions of lone parents in Denmark and the UK, intermediate levels in the continental European countries, and low levels in Southern Europe with the exception of Portugal.

Lone Mothers in Affluent Nations Research Paper

Tables 2 and 3 show that this pattern of differences within Europe holds good for both divorce and extramarital birth rates. Divorce climbed steadily in most countries from the late 1960s. In the 1990s, it remains high, but the rate has leveled off. Some countries, such as Ireland, have only permitted divorce relatively recently, but the level of informal separation, which is impossible to measure, has probably been quite high. In most European countries the chances of divorce stand at about one in three, with Sweden, Denmark, and the UK leading the league table at around two out of five. However, the chances of divorce in the USA (and the former USSR) are one in two.

Lone Mothers in Affluent Nations Research Paper

Births outside marriage have shown the largest increase in the US and Northern Europe (including the UK). With few exceptions the rise of extramarital childbearing is directly associated with the rise of cohabitation (Prinz 1995), and it is the breakdown of cohabiting unions that has contributed to the recent increase in never-married lone motherhood. This is because a separated cohabitant will be classified de jure as single, however there may in practice be little to distinguish the way these women feel from divorcees. There are further differences between countries, which aggregate statistics such as these do not reveal and which may be important from the point of view of policy making. For example, the English-speaking countries have a disproportionately high proportion of young unmarried mothers. The teenage pregnancy rate in the UK is, in the late 1990s, six times that of The Netherlands.

Lone Mothers in Affluent Nations Research Paper

Finally, it should be pointed out that there may well have been some ‘re-labeling’ in respect of the pathways into lone motherhood (Kiernan et al. 1998). In the 1960s, with the advent of the pill and the sexual revolution, sex was increasingly separated from mar- riage. Large numbers of unmarried women became premaritally pregnant, but the majority married before the baby was born in what were popularly known in English as ‘shot-gun marriages.’ From what is known about the characteristics of the divorcing population, it is reasonable to suppose that many of these marriages ended in divorce. At the end of the century, pregnant, unmarried women are more likely to have their babies outside marriage and probably to cohabit, which has increased the numbers of unmarried mothers. In addition, cohabitations are more likely than marriages to breakdown. Lone motherhood is the result of many different demographic ‘events,’ and over time the relative importance of the pathways into it have changed.

2. Causes of the Increase in Lone Motherhood

The causes of the increase in lone motherhood are hotly disputed and in any case differ over time (Laslett 1977). They can only be understood in relation to wider changes in the marriage system. In the case of the rise in the extramarital birth rate in the UK in the 1840s, Shorter (1975) argued that the main reason lay in women’s increased independence due to the new possibilities of wage-work in factories. However, others have argued convincingly that women in the traditional occupation of domestic service were particularly vulnerable to extramarital pregnancy. Intercourse seems not to have taken place until marriage was promised, and unmarried motherhood happened when the marriage failed to take place, often because of employment difficulties on the intended husband’s part. Thus in this interpretation, traditional practices fell foul of new economic mobility and uncertainty, just as the rise in unmarried motherhood during the Second World War may in large part be attributed to war-time disruption and thwarted marriage.

Debates about the causes of lone motherhood today continue to revolve around the degree to which they can be attributed to women’s increased autonomy, in terms of both the exercise of control over fertility and increased economic independence. Both demographers and economists have tended to pay most attention to this variable.

In the postwar period women have acquired the capacity to live alone with a child. This is a very recent phenomenon; until the last quarter of the twentieth century the majority of unmarried mothers found refuge with kin and in countries with little by way of welfare benefits or employment for women they must continue to resort to kin or to charity. A majority of social scientists agree that in western countries the growth in women’s employment is more important than the increased availability of state welfare benefits in providing lone mothers with the income that in large measure explains the growth in their numbers. Only in the US has a vigorous case for welfare benefits as the cause been made (especially by Murray 1984), although the ‘welfare dependency’ of lone mothers has also been deplored in the UK from the late 1980s.

The importance attached to women’s earning capacity as an explanatory variable is reinforced by influential economic theories of marriage. The new ‘home economics’ Becker (1981) and other neoclassical economists has argued that marriage should be understood in terms of the way in which it permits each partner to maximise their welfare. In this view, for biological and social reasons, women are deemed to be better at rearing children than are men. Marriage is seen as involving an efficient specialization of roles, with men acting as breadwinners and women as housewives and carers. But rising female employment and an increase in women’s wages means that the parts played by men and women in marriage are less specialized and that there is less incentive for people to be married. While there are many academics who do not subscribe to such a theory of marriage and the family, the idea that women’s economic independence has an effect on marital behavior is widespread, possibly because people with very different politics can buy into it.

However, any monocausal explanation of what is an extremely complex phenomenon is unlikely to be satisfactory. The nature of the choices and constraints faced by women who become lone mothers is complicated and involve the position of men. In the first place, it is significant that men’s capacity to act as the main earner has been conspicuously eroded. Wilson (1987) was among the first to suggest that more attention should be paid to the deteriorating economic position of black men in the United States. In addition, in the UK the proportion of income contributed to married couple families by men has fallen sharply, eroding their historical position as breadwinners (Harkness et al. 1966). Studies of young unmarried mothers have shown that the putative fathers are all too often unemployed and that there are few economic reasons for the women to marry them. In the case of women seeking divorce, research has shown that women who have suffered violent treatment in their marriage (which some estimate to be the case in 20–25 percent of divorces) are also likely to have been mistreated economically. In Western Europe, these women may find that they are better off living on state benefits.

Men have also been charged with behaving irresponsibly in no longer being prepared to marry the women they get pregnant, and opportunistically in being willing to divorce their wives in favour of—typically—a younger woman. However, for some the increase in female economic autonomy remains the most important cause, because it permits men to behave irresponsibly (Fukuyama 1999). Others stress not so much male irresponsibility but inflexibility. Thus, Hochschild (1989) has documented the tension that results from men’s failure to increase their contribution to household work in face of their wives’ increased participation in the labor market. This points not to the fact of women’s increased employment per se as a cause of divorce, but rather to the difficulties couples have in negotiating their domestic roles and, in particular, the problems men have in responding to and coping with change. Burns and Scott (1994) have referred to the increasing ‘decomplementarity’ between men and women, preferring to ground their explanations in changing structures rather than in individual decision-making, selfish or otherwise. Male inflexibility has undoubtedly exacerbated tensions in modern marriages and may be an important contributing factor to the high rate of divorce.

Research has shown more appreciation of the importance of cultural variables. Mason and Jensen (1995) have pointed out that the microtheory of the neoclassical economists does not recognize or allow for collectively generated or agreed upon norms and sanctions. Yet the meaning that is attached by the majority to marriage may well have changed. For example, women’s increased labor market participation may lead the more successful among them to prioritise sexual satisfaction and emotional companionship over men’s capacity to provide, and to a greater readiness to divorce if these expectations are not met.

At the broadest level, sociologists have grappled with the changing meaning of personal relationships, identifying a shift towards autonomy and individualism. Giddens (1992) has argued that we have seen the emergence of the ‘pure relationship,’ a social relationship entered into for its own sake and for what can be derived by each person from it in terms of material, but more usually, emotional exchange. Love has thus become contingent rather than ‘forever,’ and cohabitation rather than marriage is the logical concomitant. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995) have also pointed out that it is no longer possible to say what family, marriage, parenthood, sexuality, and love mean. All vary from individual to individual and from relationship to relationship. The twin prescriptive norms derived from the male breadwinner model on the one hand, and from an externally imposed moral code (enforced through legislation such as fault-based divorce) on the other have both been eroded. In the vacuum that is left people are left to negotiate their own solutions, which does not necessarily mean that they do so selfishly or without due regard for moral responsibility, but the result will inevitably be more diversity in terms of family structures.

3. The Problem of Lone Motherhood for Policy

Lone motherhood has always tended to be defined as a social problem. This is because social policies have worked historically on the assumption that families will broadly adhere to a ‘male breadwinner model,’ whereby men earn and women care for children (and other dependent adults). The male breadwinner model family is an ideal type. It has never actually existed for all families in any state. Women have always been economically active to different degrees in different countries and in different socioeconomic classes; however, their earnings are still substantially less than men’s because they work fewer hours, and often in female ghetto occupations which pay low wages. Thus, the majority of women are still economically dependent even though their earnings are increasingly crucial to the operation of the family economy. In the context of assumptions regarding the traditional two parent family, the problem of lone mothers becomes essentially that of women-with-children-and -withoutmen. In the absence of a male breadwinner, the state has to decide to what extent and under what conditions it will step in to fill the place of the missing husband; how far it will exert pressure on an able-bodied absent father to support his child and possibly its mother; and how far it will expect the lone mother to support the child by herself becoming a breadwinner.

In other words, the social problem of lone motherhood has been defined primarily in terms of the costs of financial support. But the solutions favored have changed over time. In early nineteenth-century Britain, the state was unwilling to countenance any claim by an unmarried mother for financial support from a putative father, believing that it would only encourage female immorality. This policy did not last long, but expectations regarding the maintenance of women and children by men remained low until the last decade of the twentieth century in Britain. In contrast, the Swedish authorities made strenuous efforts to enforce the father’s obligation to maintain from 1917.

Attitudes towards the behavior expected of lone mothers themselves have undergone more changes still. There have been pendulum swings in their treatment. Broadly speaking in the nineteenth century it was assumed that they should be in employment, working to support as many children (usually one or two) as possible. Where a poor law system operated, as in the UK and in some American states, public relief might be offered in respect of the other children. In other words, in the absence of a male breadwinner, the mother should herself become a worker. By the midtwentieth century, the policy assumption was rather that she should be a mother and stay at home with her dependent children, drawing a cash benefit from the state. However, the length of time she was deemed to be a mother varied considerably. In the postwar period in The Netherlands and the UK lone mothers were not required to register for work so long as they had a child under age 16. In France, the same rule applied only to mothers with children under age 3. At the end of the twentieth century the pendulum swung again. In the mid-1990s governments in the USA, The Netherlands, and the UK all decided that lone mothers should obtain a greater proportion of their income from earnings, although only the US took the decision also to phase out state benefits (Lewis 1997).

Policy makers have been reluctant to treat all lone mothers the same. Following the logic of the male breadwinner model, widows have long been regarded as inherently more ‘deserving’ than either separated deserted or divorced wives, or unmarried mothers. In countries with social insurance provision for those of working age, widows usually have qualified for insurance-based benefits by virtue of their position as wives. The treatment of separated or divorced women historically has been harsher, although once fault-based divorce legislation was abandoned, which happened in the vast majority of western countries during the late 1960s and early 1970s, it became impossible to distinguish between ‘guilty’ and ‘innocent’ wives in the settlements made by private law. As lone motherhood, whether by divorce or extramarital childbirth became more common in the late twentieth century, so the stigma attaching to it diminished, and lone mothers became much more ready to claim the social assistance benefits that were available to them in most western countries. This was the case even in the USA, which until 1996 provided for lone mother families via the ‘aid to families with dependent children’ program (Gordon 1994).

Lone motherhood has served as a focus for all sorts of social concerns. In the US, it seems to have wrapped up fears about the socialization of children, in terms of low levels of educational attainment and rising levels of criminality; anxieties about the role of women, particularly in terms of whether the mothers of young children should go out to work and suspicion of greater female sexual autonomy; concern about the role of men, who appear to be unwilling to shoulder financial responsibility for their children; and anxieties about race. All except the last have also been powerfully expressed in Britain.

However, in other European countries, where the proportion of lone mother families is as high or higher, lone mothers have not become problematized in the same way. The difference is that the difficulties experienced by lone mothers and their children have not been attributed to their status. Thus in Denmark and Sweden, for example, debate has centered on the position of one-earner as opposed to two-earner families. These countries drew virtually all adult women into the labor force from the 1970s onwards, such that the female labor participation rate is almost the same as that of men. Thus, in these countries a choice has not had to be made between defining lone mothers as mothers or workers. All adults share a common worker citizen status. In this context, one-earner families, whether headed by a lone mother or a male breadwinner (of which there are very few) are recognized as likely to have financial problems. Furthermore, it is recognized that the vast majority of adult women face difficulties in reconciling family and employment responsibilities, but that the problems of lone mothers will be especially acute. The adult worker citizen model is thus supported by the extensive collective provision of childcare, which is absent in the English-speaking countries, even now that the pendulum has swung once more towards treating lone mothers as workers. Continental European governments have not subscribed to the view that reconciling paid work and the unpaid work of care is a private responsibility (Hantrais and Letablier 1996). In addition, they provide more generous financial support to all families with children, which is reflected in the much lower poverty rates among lone mothers in these countries than in the US, where they are the highest in the western world.

4. Future Prospects

One of the most striking aspects of the growth in inequalities in the English-speaking countries has been the increase in child poverty. In the UK the number of children living in households with below 50 percent average income trebled between 1979 and 1990. Given that patterns of family change are unlikely to be reversed, the challenge for policy is clear.

See also: Dissolution of Family in Western Nations: Cultural Concerns; Divorce and Gender; Divorce, Sociology of; Family and Gender; Family as Institution; Family Theory and the Realities of Childbearing Behavior; Family Theory: Economics of Marriage and Divorce; Family Theory: Feminist– Economist Critique; Fertility of Single and Cohabiting Women; Lone Mothers in Nations of the South; Partnership Formation and Dissolution in Western Societies; Poverty and Gender in Affluent Nations; Poverty and Gender in Developing Nations; Repartnering and Stepchildren; Teenage Fertility;


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