The Triple Bind of Single-Parent Families: What Can be Done?

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 4:15 PM-5:45 PM
420 Barrows (Barrows Hall)
Laurie C. Maldonado, LIS, New York, NY; UCLA, Los Angeles, CA
Rense Nieuwenhuis, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden
Nathaniel Johnson, Graduate Center, City University, New York, NY; LIS Center, New York, NY
The Triple Bind of Single-Parent Families: What can be done?

Inequality and poverty have been rising in OECD countries in recent decades (OECD, 2015). Vulnerable populations, such as single-parent families run the risk of becoming increasingly marginalized. On one extreme, the U.S. has high single-parent poverty rates of about 40%. At the other end of the spectrum, Denmark has low single-parent poverty rates of less than 10%, and in some years as low as 5% (Maldonado & Nieuwenhuis, 2015). There is much variation in poverty rates between countries, and this difference is in large part due to policies that redistribute income to single-parent families such as social assistance, child allowance, and tax credits. However, up to this point, much less research has addressed whether labor market policies can also reduce single parent poverty.

Atkinson brought this issue to the fore in his recent book advocating for “the importance of measures to render less unequal the incomes people receive before government taxes and transfers” (2015, p. 113). Similarly, Kenworthy in Social Democratic America provides particular policy proposals for single-parent families in the U.S. Therefore, we hope to build on these policy proposals to examine strategies that not only address redistribution, but also raise standards for better suited and better paying employment for single-parent families.

We present empirical evidence on poverty and policy associations, covering 19 OECD countries using the LIS data. We will apply the theoretical framework of “the triple bind of single-parent families” (Nieuwenhuis & Maldonado, forthcoming). The triple bind suggests that single parents face triple inadequacies in resources, employment, and policy. ‘Inadequate resources’ refer to single parents’ socio-economic background, and includes having only one earner in the household, which makes it difficult to provide income protection and security. The majority of single parents are working in full-time paid employment. However, many single parents are in ‘inadequate employment’ such as low-wage jobs with inflexible working hours and little employment protection. The focus of this analysis is that single-parent families face “inadequate policy” such as childcare services that do not align with work schedules, or a lacking safety net to protect families from falling into poverty. Perhaps taken in isolation these factors are manageable. However, taken together, the triple bind further complicates the lives of single parents and their children, and the end result is often poverty. Our study will examine the role of policies  - taxes and transfers, employment protection, active labour market policy, paid parental leave, and childcare and preschool services - in reducing poverty. We conclude with policy proposals that address the triple bind and lower poverty for single-parent families. 


Atkinson, A. (2015). Inequality: what can be done? Harvard University Press.

Maldonado, L. C., & Nieuwenhuis, R. (2015). Family Policies and Single Parent Poverty in 18 OECD Countries, 1978-2008. Community, Work & Family, 18(4), 395–415.

Nieuwenhuis, R., & Maldonado, L.C. (forthcoming). Single Parents’ Triple Bind: Inadequate Resources, Employment, and Policies. In Henning Lohmann and Ive Marx (eds), Handbook of Research on In-Work Poverty. Edward Elgar Press.

Kenworthy, L. (2014). Social Democratic America. Oxford University Press.

OECD (2015). OECD Economic Outlook. OECD Publishing, Paris.