Designing Policies for Helping Single Mothers
by Barbara R. Bergmann
University of Maryland
Presented at “Women Working to Make a Difference,” IWPR’s Seventh International Women’s
Policy Research Conference, June 2003
We should cease allowing lone mothers and their children to have a standard of living
markedly lower than that of two-parent families. Exempting them from paid work creates
resentment and tends to be destructive of gender equality. Provision of aid should be
accomplished by programs that provide certain expensive services–health insurance, child care,
post-secondary education, housing subsidies--open to all members of the population, possibly on
a means-tested basis. Proposed large-scale cash payments to all, such as basic income grants or
endowments of capital sums, would not suffice to meet the needs of single mothers for such
expensive services and would consume government resources that could finance them. A radical
reform in the awarding and enforcement of child support payments by absent parents is needed.
Mothers without spouses or partners have time-consuming, energy-consuming, and
money-consuming responsibilities far beyond those of most other adults, and the vast majority of
them are poorly endowed with the resources needed to meet them. The increasing proportion of
women and children in this difficult situation points to the need for a sensible and humane public
policy that would allow this part of the population to have a decent life. I argue here that the
provision by government of certain expensive goods and services to all citizens needing them,
rather than substantial cash payments restricted to lone mothers, would be the kind of aid best
calculated to allow single mothers and their children to live comfortable lives as normal
members of the community.
Minimization of Lone Motherhood as a Policy Aim
Should policy continue to be structured so as to discourage (or at least avoid
encouraging) the out-of-wedlock births and divorces that create lone motherhood? There are a
number of questions under this heading that need consideration. First, there is the question of the
desirability or even legitimacy of such an aim for policy. Heidi Hartmann has advanced the
proposition that every woman has a right to have children. The argument that such a right should
be assumed or granted would be based on the strong desire of most women to have children, and
the fact that for a considerable proportion of women the failure to have any would constitute a
Hartmann’s proposed right is easiest to accept in the case of a never-married woman at
age 35, without a husband or reliable partner in sight, but with a good job, who decides to
become a mother. But how should we regard and treat the high school student and her partner
who have a baby at age 16, or the woman and her partner who produce the woman’s sixth out-of-
wedlock child? These are cases of unwise reproductive behavior, and we might advocate
avoiding such behavior whether the people in question were married or not. These hard cases do
not, however, justify a negative attitude toward all lone mothers, much less the victimization of
children in single-parent families by punitive policy.
A second question is the likelihood of success for a policy of discouraging lone
motherhood. Societal efforts to get child-rearing confined to married couples have been
increasingly unsuccessful in the latter half of the twentieth century.
A third question, perhaps the most important one, concerns the harm that policies that
attempt to minimize the extent of lone motherhood might cause. Policies intended to deter
women from entering lone motherhood, that work by keeping single-mother families at a low
standard of living (mainly by failing to help them), obviously do harm to those children who,
despite such policies, have to live with lone mothers. Even if we decided that, other things being
equal, society would gain from keeping the numbers of lone mothers low, the cost to children of
imposing immiserating policies should rule them out on humanitarian grounds.
Are there any kinds of programs that would have the effect of reducing single
parenthood, yet would not inflict hardship on the people who nevertheless go on to single
parenthood? One possibility would be educational efforts that succeeded in changing both men’s
and women’s beliefs and behaviors with respect to sex, marriage, and divorce. Whether such
changes could be successfully engineered is questionable.
Lone Mothers and Paid Work
Should welfare payments to lone mothers who want to stay home with their children be
reestablished if that were to become politically feasible? Prior to welfare reform, the stipends,
plus other cash-like benefits, were not sufficient to allow these families a standard of living
above the official poverty line. In designing future policy, we could not advocate a return to such
a situation. So the stipends for stay-at-home mothers, if they were to be reestablished, would
have to be two or three times as large as welfare payments have been. Further, to confine such
stipends to lone mothers would be considered unfair (and would indeed be unfair). Stipends (not
necessarily the same size, but nevertheless sizeable ones) would have to be given to married
mothers who stayed home with their own children.
Offering large stipends to married and unmarried mothers (or to parents of either sex)
who stay home with their children would probably increase the number of women who spend
considerable time out of the labor force with the birth of each child. Now 60 percent of the
mothers of children under one year old are in the labor force. Employers can with some
confidence depend on their continuity, treat them as fit for responsible jobs, and therefore
consider them promotable. Reducing the continuity of women’s labor force attachment would
threaten a reversal of the gains that women have made in the last half century. Those gains–in
educational opportunity, in the freedom to practice occupations and professions previously
reserved for men, in the independence and status that comes with working for pay–could be lost
as employers with good reason ceased to view women as having a continuous attachment to the
There is thus a tension between supporting lone mothers to stay at home with their
children and gender equality, which arguably depends on men and women having similar life
courses and activities. Where one comes down in this matter depends on the value one puts on
gender equality, and on what social arrangements one believes constitute gender equality. It
depends also on whether one accepts the views of most researchers that children do not require
full-time maternal care to develop, grow up, and function successfully.
Benefits that Lone Mothers Need
Consider a lone mother with two preschool children, living in a city with average housing
costs, working for the minimum wage and receiving the Earned Income Tax Credit and food
stamps. She would have a disposable income of $15,736, which is close to the official U.S.
poverty line for such a family. We can interpret the poverty line as indicating the amount that
would suffice to cover ordinary living expenses--food, clothing and shelter--at a minimal level of
decency. However, her income would certainly not cover ordinary living expenses plus health
insurance at $4,000 and licensed child care at $12,000. In fact, if she had to spend any of her
wage income on health care or child care, her living standard would fall to a sub-poverty level.
It is very clear that if this family is going to lead a normal life, some way must be found
to provide them with health insurance and child care. What is the best way to do that? Raising
the minimum wage or giving monthly child allowances would not do the job. Nor would health
care access be guaranteed by sending a $4,000 unearmarked payment to the family, along with a
letter saying the money was to help buy health insurance. Too many families, especially those at
the bottom of the income scale who are lacking many of the goods that most people think of as
“necessities”, would spend all or part of the money for other things, and would buy inferior
health coverage or none. If we wish a family to be covered by a certain standard package of
health insurance, the only sure way to bring that about for sure is to require that they enroll in a
plan, with the government payment going to the provider.
The same kinds of considerations apply to child care. While some unrestricted cash
benefits to families with children are clearly justified, they could not suffice to solve the
expensive problem of child care. Getting children good care and relieving parents of at least part
of the financial burden of buying child care requires government provision of child care itself, or
the provision of vouchers for care in private facilities, or some combination of the two. The
improvement of the quality of purchased child care requires a better system of government
licensing of child care personnel. Again, a unified system of government help with child care
would work better than one restricted to lone mothers or to lower-income families. Setting up a
universal, free, full-day pre-kindergarten program for children three years old and up, as has
recently been proposed by the Committee for Economic Development, an organization financed
by the largest American corporations, would be a substantial start on solving the child care
The need for government help for families in meeting the cost of health insurance and
child care is clearest in the case we have given, the single mother with the rock bottom
disposable income of $15,736, who has a need for goods and services whose cost is almost
$32,000. But the case for giving help extends to families with incomes considerably above the
amount that can be earned at the minimum wage. Single mothers or couples with pre-tax wage
income of $40,000 are faced with a poverty-line standard of living if they have to buy health
insurance and licensed child care on their own. Faced with this uncomfortable prospect, they are
likely to go without health insurance, and to buy the cheapest child care they can find, which
may be stultifying, harmful, possibly dangerous.
Governmental support for health insurance and child care, whether provided free to the
families or for fees on a sliding scale, would go a long way toward allowing single parents to
lead more normal lives. Other major aids to a normal life for single-mother families include
support for a college education for children of such families, and assistance with housing costs in
areas where such costs are high relative to wages.
Child Support from Absent Parents
When parents split up and the children remain with their mother, the per capita income in
the mother's household is likely to be considerably lower than the per capita income in the
father's. The flow of child support payments has historically been far below its potential level,
despite decades of effort to improve the administration of the system that enforces the payments.
Courts proceedings are simply not an efficient way to set and enforce a steady flow of small
payments. A universal formula should be used for fixing child support obligations, and the
obligation should rise and fall with the noncustodial parent's income, in the manner of a tax.
Payments should be collected by payroll deductions and disbursed by a government agency.
Political Feasibility of Such a Set of Programs
Enactment of the kinds of programs proposed here is certainly unlikely in the short run.
That does not mean that laying out the outlines of such a program is a useless exercise, since an
explicit agenda is needed if we are to agitate for progress. In fact, extreme pessimism is
unjustified: there is widespread consciousness that programs of this sort are needed, and all of
the proposed programs already exist in some form in the United States, although grossly
underfunded. Just as the growing number of people in the U.S. without health insurance will
eventually wear down the opposition to a universal program, the growing number of lone
mothers, and the growing proportion of all mothers in that situation, will make the need for
programs to assist them more and more clear as time goes on.