The Social Policy Context of Single-Parent Families



This stream will focus on single-parent families and the ways in which these families are affected by social policy across European countries and beyond. In European and OECD countries, single-parent families have high rates of poverty as compared to other family types (OECD, 2012). Many children will spend at least part of their childhood growing up poor in a single-parent family (OECD, 2011). There is clear evidence that poverty is harmful to the future wellbeing of children (Duncan & Magnuson, 2011).

Welfare states and their social policies are in constant development, currently facing budget constraints and new social risks. These new social risks include, but are not limited to, insufficient social security provision, combining work and family, and single parenthood (Bonoli, 2005). Studying the social policy context of single-parent families is particularly relevant, as single parenthood represents a new social risk with adverse outcomes. Active labour market programs seek to reduce unemployment durations and increasingly often include a focus on single parents. The degree to which social policies are targeted specifically towards single parents varies across countries (Brady & Burroway, 2012). Social investment strategies introduce policies that `prepare’ individuals for economic independence, rather than policies that `repair’ adverse outcomes with financial transfers (Morel, Palier & Palme, 2012).

Scholars have extensively studied the impact of social policy on reducing poverty among single-parent families. Previous studies have focused on fiscal policy, finding that taxes and transfers effectively reduce poverty of single-parent families across countries (McLanahan, Casper, & Sorensen, 1995; Cornia & Danziger, 1997; Bradbury & Jäntti, 1999; Gornick & Meyers, 2003; Rainwater & Smeeding, 2004; Sainsbury & Morissens, 2002;Heuveline & Weinshenker, 2008; Gornick & Jäntti, 2009; Brady & Burroway, 2012). Fewer studies, however, have addressed whether other types of social policies have also decreased single parent poverty, such as family policies, early child education, childcare, health care, employment and labor market regulations (e.g. see Maldonado & Nieuwenhuis, 2014). In addition, studies on how social policy affect single-parent families have emphasised income poverty, but not other outcomes such as inequality, material deprivation, and child wellbeing. This means that there is ample opportunity to improve our knowledge of social policies that affect single-parent families, and that the focus on single-parent families brings together a wide range of social policies.

This session invites theory-driven empirical studies on social policies that affect single-parent families. We specifically invite papers that address:

  • Social Policy Outcomes: descriptions and analyses of how social policies affect single-parent families. What are the various policy arrangements for single-parent families? Do single‐parent families benefit more from universal welfare state policies, or from policies targeted on specific needs of such families?
  • Social Policy Responses: descriptions and analyses of social policy innovations focused on single-parent families. What social policies are adopted for single-parent families, and how are these policies debated? What are the determinants of (EU member) states adopting policies? Is there a trend towards targeting or universalism? How does Social Investment translate to policies for single-parent families?


Bonoli, G. (2005). The politics of the new social policies: providing coverage against new social risks in mature welfare states. Policy & Politics, 33(3), 431–449.

Bradbury, B. & Jäntti, M. (1999). Child poverty across industrialized nations. United Nations Children’s Fund Innocenti Research Centre. Innocenti occasional papers: Economic and Social Policy Series, no. 71, Florence: UNICEF.

Brady, D., & Burroway, R. (2012). Targeting, universalism, and single-mother poverty: a multilevel analysis across 18 affluent democracies. Demography, 49(2), 719–46.

Cornia, G. A., & Danziger, S. (1997). Child poverty and deprivation in industrialized countries 1945–1995. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press.

Duncan, G. & K. Magnuson. (2011). The nature and impact of early achievement skills, attention and behavior problems. In G.J. Duncan and R.J. Murnane (eds), Whither Opportunity: rising inequality, schools, and children’s life chances. New York: Russell Sage.

Gornick, J. & Jäntti, M. (2009). Child poverty in upper-income countries: lessons from the Luxembourg Income Study. In S. Kamerman and A. Ben-Ariel (eds.), From child welfare to child wellbeing: an international perspective on knowledge in the service of policy making. New York: Springer.

Gornick, J. C., & Meyers, M. K. (2003). Families that work. Policies for Reconciling Parenthood and Employment. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Heuveline, P. & Weinshenker, M. (2008). The international child poverty gap: does demography matter? Demography, 45(1): 173-191.

Maldonado, L. C., & Nieuwenhuis, R. (2014). Family Policies and Single Parent Poverty in 18 OECD Countries, 1978-2008. LIS Working Paper Series (No. 622).

McLanahan, S., Casper, L., & Sorensen, A. (1995). Women's Roles and Women's Poverty in Eight Industrialized Countries. In K. Mason & A. Jenson (eds.) Gender and Family Change in Industrialized Countries. 258-278. Oxford: IUSSP/Oxford University Press.

Morel, N., Palier, B., & Palme, J. (2012). Towards a Social Investment Welfare state? Ideas, Policies and Challenges. Policy Press.

OECD (2011A). Doing Better for Families. OECD Publishing.

Rainwater, L. & Smeeding, T. (2004). Single-parent poverty, inequality, and the welfare state. In D. Moynihan, T. Smeeding, & L. Rainwater (eds.), The Future of the Family (pp. 96-113). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Sainsbury, D., & Morissens, A. (2002). Poverty in Europe in the mid-1990s: the effectiveness of means-tested benefits. Journal of European Social Policy, 12(200211), 307–327.

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