Single parenthood is becoming more common in the EU. The majority of single parents in the EU do well, in the sense that they have employment, do not live at-risk-of-poverty and are not materially deprived. As the majority of single-parent households are headed by women, this is in part an achievement in gender equality. Yet, compared to couples with children, single parents do have higher rates of living in a household with low work intensity, at-risk-of-poverty (AROP), or material deprivation. During the period 2010 to 2018, the situation of single parents in the EU improved: their rates of severe housing deprivation, severe material deprivation, at-risk-of-poverty and social exclusion (AROPE), and very low working intensity decreased. However, at-risk-of-poverty rates did not improve.
The European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs commissioned a study at the request of the FEMM Committee which describes trends in the situation of single parents in the EU, with additional evidence from Iceland and Norway.
The study analyses the resources, employment, and social policy context of single parents and provides recommendations to improve their situation, with attention to the Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences.
The study found that single parents have become better-resourced. Even though lower educated parents are more likely to become a single parent than higher educated parents, over time the share of single parents with a low level of education decreased and the share with a high level of education increased. In addition, particularly in North Western European countries, both parents continue to be involved in the care for their children after separation or divorce, and an increasing number of children live equal amounts of time with both parents. This practice of joint physical custody is associated with good outcomes for the well-being of both children and parents.
Single parents have become more likely to be employed, and less likely to live in a household with a very low work intensity. However, compared to two-parent families, this employment is more likely part-time and based on temporary contracts. For an increasing number of single parents, work is not a guarantee against poverty. In-work poverty is lower in countries with employment protection, active labour market policies, paid leave, childcare, and adequate levels of redistribution.
Child support policies regulate the financial responsibilities of parents towards their children after separation. In many European countries, however, they are not highly effective in reducing poverty among single parents and their children, among other reasons because of their high level of complexity in relation to family diversity, and an interplay with means-tested benefits.
Early childhood education and care (ECEC) is the most important policy in promoting gender equality in the labour market and facilitating the employment of single parents, and to prevent the adverse outcomes among children of growing up in poverty.
Paid parental leave has the potential to increase employment among single parents and reduce their at-risk-of-poverty, and parental leave for fathers has the potential to create more gender-equal caring relations that last even when parents separate. For fathers to take up parental leave, the leave has to be non-transferable, well-paid and flexible. Yet, in the EU more than 1 in 10 working women and 1 in 8 working men are not eligible for statutory paid leave, in part due to precarious work.
This study demonstrated that despite fewer single parents being low educated, fewer single parents living in a household with a very low work intensity, more single parents working, and greater involvement of both separated parents in the care for their child(ren), at-risk-of-poverty rates have not declined for single parents in the EU. Markets have become too precarious and unequal, and social security and in particular levels of minimum income protection were found to be inadequate and falling.
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