The cost of being a single mother

The labor force participation rate for women has increased tremendously over the past four decades. While this rise undoubtedly reflects growth in economic opportunities for women, a concurrent rise in households with two working parents has presented its own set of challenges. A recent Pew Research Center Report also finds that the share of married parent households in which both parents work full time has gone up from 31% in 1970 to 46% today. Based on a survey of 1,807 parents with children younger than 18, the Pew report finds that more than half of these households say that balancing work with raising a family has been quite difficult. Thus, it is not surprising that the OECD Better Life Index ranks the United States a dismal 29 out of 36 OECD countries on “work-life balance.” With women still shouldering a larger share of parenting responsibility, working mothers, particularly full-timers, were more likely to report work and childcare as a tough balancing act.

While the focus of the Pew report on two-parent families is helpful, it leaves out the particular challenges faced by single mothers who shoulder nearly the full responsibility of bringing up their children while trying to retain a job and earn a living. How are single mothers faring in terms of employment and earnings?

Employment of single mothers

The Employment Characteristics of Families Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics explores the unemployment rate for families. This survey shows that the unemployment rate for women who “maintain families without spouses present,” in other words, single mothers who are heads of households, is currently at 7.6%. This is significantly higher than the average U.S. unemployment rate today of 5%. For married mothers, the corresponding number is at 4%.

The chart below shows the unemployment rate for single mothers versus all married women. The data series for married mothers is only available from 2009, so the chart also compares single mothers to all married women. For these women, the unemployment rate is currently at 3%. In fact, over the last ten years, single mothers have consistently had unemployment rates that were on average five percentage points higher than for married women. However, part of this difference is because fewer married women, especially mothers, participate in the labor market than do single mothers.


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