Study: Families with One Earner Increasingly Living in Poverty

November 20, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

This article and the research that goes with it give us the information that, when two parents engage in paid work, they can earn more than when only one of them does (The Independent, 11/13/13). I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “I already knew that.” You’re thinking, “We needed a study to tell us that?” Well, whether we needed one or not, we have such a study, courtesy of the Rowntree Foundation and the Institute for Public Policy Research.

The research is based on data from England and therefore bears the unique features of British policies regarding families and children, many of which seem to contribute to the problems the study highlights. Truth to tell, the study does provide some interesting information about the working lives of couples and single parents with children.

The breathtaking news out of the study is that, among couples with children, those in which only one of the parents works for pay are more likely to live in poverty than those in which both parents work. Surely this is no surprise.

What’s also not a surprise is that the article and the study both seek to bootstrap that and other facts into the proposition that state-subsidized childcare will solve the problem of children living in poverty with but one parent who works and earns. That’s too bad because even a casual reading of the study itself casts considerable doubt on that assertion. From the data offered by the study, it’s hard to conclude anything but that mothers with children don’t contribute to the family’s income because they prefer caring for the kids.

That too is no surprise, and it’s even alluded to, albeit obliquely, by the study’s authors, Kayte Lawton and Spencer Thompson. In the United States, for example, there are close to 6 million stay-at-home mothers and fewer than 200,000 stay-at-home dads according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Study after study after study show mothers of every level of income and education opting out of work and into full-time motherhood when they have the opportunity. We’ve seen this among graduates of the University of Michigan Law School, MBA graduates of the University of Chicago and at least two cohorts of female Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics graduates. We also see it among British women whose economic prospects aren’t nearly as good as those more highly-educated women.

The Rowntree/IPPR study shows that some 66% of women with children who don’t work are those whose kids are four years old or younger. The all-too-obvious conclusion is that, once the children have grown up enough to start school, mothers return to work. That in turn means that they weren’t out of work involuntarily, but by choice. Again, this is nothing new.

It may be that British women of lower educational attainment and lower skills are more able to opt out of the labor market than are their American counterparts because the government across the pond provides incentives for doing just that. The Independent article offers one woman as an example.

“My husband works at a chemicals factory and is one rung up from the bottom. We have three children, aged 16, 14 and 7 and I look after them. It is getting harder to survive on one income because the price of everything has jumped. A £60 shop is now £80 and our heating bills have doubled. It puts a lot of pressure on my husband as the only earner. I want to go out and work as a teaching assistant but if I earn £120 a week I would lose £110 in benefits, including a carers allowance for my 14-year-old who is disabled. That would wipe out my earnings.

American women who opt out of the workforce tend to be better educated and more affluent than do British women probably because they don’t get paid for staying home. They therefore need money of their own or a high-earning spouse to allow them to opt out.

So, one fair description of the gist of the article and the study is this: the British government’s financial incentives to women to stay home and care for children must now be counterbalanced by additional financial incentives (subsidized daycare) to get them to go to work. What’s wrong with that picture?

To their credit, Lawton and Thompson seem to vaguely realize that the low level of employment among mothers with children under five has something to do with their preferences. Unfortunately, that doesn’t keep them from also assuming that England should sweep away the “barriers” to their full-time employment as if that would make much difference. They rightly point out that Scandinavian countries have instituted fairly beneficent family leave and childcare policies. But they overlook the fact that, while those policies have gotten more women into the workplace, they overwhelmingly occupy part-time, poorly-paid positions.

Also to their credit, Lawton and Thompson realize that there is no way under the sun that a British government that’s strapped for cash is going to dash out and start paying for daycare so mothers can go to work.

And finally to their credit, the authors put in a plug for fathers. They point out that “most fathers would like to be more involved in family life and spend more time with their children.” Obviously, if more women pulled more of their weight in supporting their families, fathers would be freed to do exactly that. But, to be blunt, nowhere on earth is it fathers’ wants or needs about how much time they spend with their kids that drives the family decision about who works and who stays home. Overwhelmingly, it’s mothers’ desires to stay home and raise the children that does. That’s why we see, in country after country, the stay-at-home parent is the mother, and England is no exception.

So the idea that the British government should adopt expensive policies to try to coax mothers into doing what they don’t want to do looks very much like a non-starter.

Besides, if the issue is children living in poverty, there’s another cause than mothers’ unwillingness to earn. The fact is, as the study admits, that men’s wages have been essentially stagnant for decades now. That’s partly a result of more women in the labor force, but it’s also due to government free-trade policies that all but order British capital to find a home overseas. The result of that is the decline of well-paying manufacturing jobs that were almost exclusively held by men and that required little education to get.

The lesson is that free-trade policies have always been a bullet aimed at the heart of blue-collar males in mature industrial economies. Overwhelmingly, they’re the ones who’ve seen their fortunes decline, but they’re not the only ones to suffer; their children do too. That’s because mothers have only picked up part of the slack, which, to be fair, would have been difficult for them. Those good jobs in manufacturing aren’t there for them either. What’s left are service-sector jobs like teaching and nursing that, while respectable occupations, don’t pay what General Motors once did.

So we now have a generation of low-income mothers complaining that they can’t find a good man to be a father to their children. They’re right. Men with a high school education have essentially no good job prospects and that’s a matter of government policy. Fatherless children and children living in poverty can all be laid at the doorstep of policies whose results were easily visible from the outset. They show no sign of changing.

One cure for much of what ails us would be a dramatic decline in the divorce rate, a dramatic decline in births to single mothers and radical changes to child custody laws to keep both parents in children’s lives when a divorce does occur. But, sensible as those reforms would be, they’re essentially pie in the sky. There’s little impetus for them, no political will and considerable opposition to all three.

So as usual, people will continue muddling along, doing their best with a situation that’s virtually guaranteed to continue producing broken families and insufficient incomes. Despite every effort to the contrary, that tends to mean mothers who see themselves first as caregivers to children and fathers who see themselves as providers. ‘Twas ever thus.

National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.


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