Why Are So Many Single-Parent Families in Poverty?

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Because public policy hasn't kept up with the massive changes in American family structure

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Brian Snyder/Reuters

When I was United States Ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, I asked for the highlights of their cross-country data on women's economic conditions. Inspired by that provocative data, the other members of the OECD and its Secretary General decided to launch a new gender initiative. Over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing data from the gender initiative and other related OECD reports.


As I wrote in The Atlantic in 2003, the traditional family—one breadwinner and one homemaker—has been replaced by the "juggler family" with either two working parents or a single parent who works. Nine years later, the nation no longer clings quite so tightly to the ideal of the 1950s family, but policies and practices lag behind. The US is the only OECD country without paid maternity leave; a parent's job isn't protected if he or she takes a day off to care for a sick child; and the US still lacks affordable, high-quality child care. This could all change in Obama's second term: He has said he's committed to working with states on paid family leave, supports legislation to provide paid sick days, and has invested in grants to states raise standards in their early learning programs while also supporting expansion of he Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit.

One big improvement since 2003: In the Atlantic article I pointed out that mandatory, universal health care coverage would be the best gift to parents seeking flexibility and security because it would allow those with flexible schedules or in less standard jobs access to affordable health care for themselves and their families.

Over one-quarter of US children lives with a single parent, the highest proportion among developed countries:

Percent of Children age 0-14 in Single-Parent Households, 2010

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Single-parent families are significantly more likely to live in poverty across the OECD. The US, with among the highest rates of child poverty across the OECD, also has among the top three single-parent household poverty rates—at just under 50 percent, behind only Luxembourg and Japan:

Poverty rates by household type, 2008

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Our lack of quality childcare and after-school programs puts these kids at risk and endangers the nation's future in a knowledge economy. Our lack of support for flexible work arrangements and Social Security credits for caregivers puts these parents at risk. However, there is good news: health care reform will be an enormous help to these families. They are raising our future citizens and building our productive assets at great cost to themselves and with little help from the rest of us.

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Karen Kornbluh was ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development from 2009 to 2012.  More

Previously she served as Policy Director for then-Senator Barack Obama.  She has also been Deputy Chief of Staff at the U.S. Treasury Department and Director of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Federal Communications Commission. Early in her career, she was a management consultant to Fortune 100 manufacturing companies and an economic forecaster.  She has been a Visiting Fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Markle Technology Fellow, and Director of the Work and Family Program at the New America Foundation. Kornbluh has written extensively about technology policy and family policy for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Atlantic. New York Times columnist David Brooks cited her Democracy article "Families Valued" as one of the best magazine articles of 2006. 

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