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Policy Insights

Supporting All Family Models Equally is Not a Complex Policy Task

Family diversity is not a new phenomenon, and it is here to stay. However, different types of families are not always equally supported by governments. Our recently published book focuses on the “triple bind” of single-parent families, and on the following question: How can societies support all family models? And while it is often suggested that family diversity would require a complex policy design, we believe otherwise. It does not have to be that complicated.

The rising diversity of families is often seen as one of the “new social risks;” perhaps in line with Tolstoy’s famous observation, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But we contrast this perspective with that of the far more nuanced Myrdal and Klein, who wrote, “Though it is fairly easy to describe what constitutes a bad home, there is no simple definition of a good one. Conformity with the traditional pattern certainly is no guarantee of the happiest results” (1956, p. 126).

Families are constantly changing. How these changes affect their wellbeing – and the wellbeing of children in particular – depends on the context. But these shifts also raise important questions for social policy. How successful has social policy been in responding to the changing dynamics of families? How can policy be used to improve the wellbeing of single parents and their families? Should policy treat single-parent families differently?

The Triple Bind of Single-Parent Families is a new open-access book edited by Rense Nieuwenhuis and Laurie C. Maldonado. The book, cross-national in design, brings together the contributions of a wide range of international experts on single parenthood and social policy. The book starts with the premise that single parents and their families are caught in a “triple bind,” or an interplay of inadequate resources, employment, and policy that negatively affects their wellbeing. The case studies presented in the volume offer important policy lessons that can be used to reduce overall levels of socioeconomic inequality, promote gender equality, support employment, and maintain redistributive policies. The ultimate theme of the book is that policies that benefit all families also benefit single-parent families.

Single-parent families can, of course, benefit from policies that are solely targeted at them. One example of such a policy is child support. Child support requires non-residential parents to provide financial support to their children. Yet however well-intentioned, mandating child support often has little impact on reducing poverty, and does not adequately respond to the increasing diversity among families (Meyer, Skinner & Davidson, 2011). Another example that is specific to single-parent families is joint custody and shared residence. Residence is considered shared when children alternately live with each separated parent for roughly equal amounts of time. This joint custody model is becoming more common in many countries. In their contribution, Fransson, Låftman, Östberg, and Bergström show that in Sweden, children in shared residence arrangements report levels of wellbeing that are generally on par with those of children whose parents do not separate.

While examining the effects of these policies is important, an overarching finding of our book is that single parents benefit tremendously from policies that are not specifically targeted at them. Bradshaw, Keung, and Chzhen found that family benefits, which are available to all families with children, represent the largest income transfers to low-income, single-parent families. Van Lancker demonstrated that childcare and parental leave – provided it is paid and is not overly long – promotes the employment of single mothers. Duvander and Korsell showed that in Sweden, take-up of parental leave is high among fathers, and that fathers continue to take parental leave even after a separation. The findings of Nieuwenhuis, Tøge, and Palme suggest that when childcare and active labour market policies are available, single parents are not only more likely to be employed, but their employment is associated with better self-reported health. The results further indicate that parents who are unemployed report being in better health in countries with higher levels of child benefits and social assistance.

Thus, the evidence presented in our book clearly shows that although developing specific policies aimed at single parents may sometimes be necessary, single-parent families generally benefit most from the same policies that provide support for other kinds of families, including family benefits, parental leave, and childcare.

Single parents do better in societies with policies and institutions that support equality of gender and equality of class.  Just like everyone else.