Poverty cannot be meaningfully debated without due regard for a population’s demographic risk profile. When it comes to child poverty, this must include a discussion of the role of single parenthood. Other things equal, a society where single parenthood is more widespread will be prone to producing higher levels of child poverty.
For the poverty industry, single parenthood is a taboo topic. In their mindset, poverty is always and everywhere a ‘structural’ issue; it is caused by capitalism and capitalism alone. To them, talking about demographic characteristics of poor people smacks of ‘behavioural explanations’, which is shorthand for ‘blaming the victim’ and ‘demonising the poor’. Hence, talking about a phenomenon like single parenthood is kryptonite to the poverty industry.
This is not to say that social conservatives, in many ways the poverty industry’s natural enemies, are much more helpful in this regard. To them, single parenthood is a symptom of a decline in family values, which, in turn, is seen as a product of the wider social changes that have taken place since the 1960s. Yet in doing so, they are missing the main points. The UK is hardly the only country in the world which has gone through profound social changes during that time. But both the extent and the profile of single parenthood in the UK are quite unusual by Western European standards.
About one in five British children live with a single parent, one of the highest rates in Europe, and slightly ahead of Sweden and Denmark. Yet the really big difference is in the employment rates amongst that group. In Sweden and Denmark, four out of five single parents are in paid work. In the UK, it is little more than one out of two. The UK combines the single parenthood levels of the most socially liberal societies with the single parent employment rates of the most socially conservative societies – the worst of both worlds.
Worse, single parenthood in the UK is also extremely concentrated among those groups that are least prepared to cope with that challenge economically. Almost 70 per cent of British single mothers have no formal qualifications other than compulsory schooling. Among German single parents[i], that share is 35 per cent. British single parents are also having their first child at a considerably younger age than German single parents – a difference of four years, on average. These two variables – young age and low skill levels – are not unrelated, of course: having a child at a very young age makes it significantly harder to acquire skills and/or build up work experience.
This unusual demographic risk profile is one of the reasons why such high levels of social expenditure deliver such mediocre outcomes. The Scandinavian arrangement may not be the most attractive one from a classical liberal perspective, but on its own terms, it seems to work rather well. There are lots of single parents, but almost all of them work, and typically at high work levels. The government tops up their wages and subsidises their childcare costs, but supplementing income from employment is a lot easier than substituting it.
Unfortunately, the reasons for the UK’s high prevalence of single parenthood, combined with such an unfavourable skill profile among that group, are not well understood. But it is safe to say that raising work levels among that group has to be an absolute priority. The last government tried to do this, with an approach that was all carrots and no sticks. As soon as a single parent works for 16 hours a week, the government mobilises a Working Tax Credit payment of nearly £4,000 per year, and refunds 70 per cent of all childcare costs. To a degree, it worked. The single parent employment rate rose from 43 per cent in the mid-1990 to 55 per cent today, which is still the lowest rate in Europe, but no longer by such an extreme margin.
But the potential for this strategy has now been exhausted. A strategy to build on the progress made so far must involve more stick and less carrot, more low-paid work and less full-time benefit dependency. You can see why the poverty industry prefers to battle imaginary ‘structural causes’.
Kristian Niemietz is the author of Redefining the Poverty Debate – Why a War on Markets is No Substitute for a War on Poverty.
[i] Unfortunately, there are no broader international comparisons on the socio-demographic profiles of single parents.