Single Parenthood and Childhood

Colección de Estudios Sociales: Obra social Fundación La Caixa
Volumen 20: Monoparentalidad e infancia
Autoría: Lluís Flaquer, Elisabet Almeda y Lara Navarro

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The study confirms the emergence of new family structures in developed countries and the challenge it poses to the levels of welfare currently achieved.

Living conditions, school dropout rates and expectations for the future development of children in Spain depend, to a large extent, on the type of family nucleus in which they grow up.

The study offers an x-ray of the different situations of single parenthood existing in Spain, diagnosing the effects that this situation has on children. Thus, for these three researchers, the emergence of single-parent families and their children is causing the risk of poverty to shift towards these children, taking into account the low social spending on benefits and services for families, which is particularly detrimental to the most vulnerable. This study is part of the debate on child poverty in modern advanced societies, where a warning bell has been sounded about its increase in recent years. European indicators reveal that poverty levels are higher in single-parent households than in other households with dependent children.

Summary of Volume 20: Lone Parenthood and Childhood


According to the authors, child poverty rates are increasing in modern advanced societies because, in general, state social policies have failed to adapt to new family realities. They argue that in a democratic society in which equal opportunities at the beginning of the life cycle are a determining factor in people’s destiny, it is unacceptable that the exclusion that children may experience should mark them throughout their lives and end up determining their future irreversibly. In other words, children have their whole lives ahead of them and should not have to suffer the repercussions of the vicissitudes experienced by their parents.

Based on the analysis of the 2001 Census, the study provides information on the growth of single parenthood in Spain, as well as on the variety of situations among households headed by a single person with dependent children. The assessment of its incidence at European level is carried out through a comparative analysis of statistical data and Eurostat indicators. The study finds a general increase in the risk of child poverty in developed countries and in Europe in particular. The proportion of children living in poverty has increased in 17 of the 24 OECD countries for which data are available. Greece, Italy, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Germany and Ireland are the European countries whose child poverty risk rates exceed 20%. In Spain, this rate is 19%. However, the most recent data show that child poverty is rising in our country, and tends to move away from the EU average.


A series of social processes and mechanisms, including the trend towards the individualization of family relationships and the growth of marital instability, bring with them the proliferation of new forms of cohabitation and an increase in the pluralism of household types. The growth of family diversity demands greater attention to the existence of possible differences in the welfare of children living in different types of homes, in order to avoid excessively disparate starting situations that may end up spoiling their necessary equality of opportunities in the educational system.

Currently, Spain has about 1,400,000 single-parent households, which represents 10% of Spanish households. During the period 1991-2001, single-parent households grew by nearly 50%. Eighty percent of these single-parent households are headed by women. To the extent that, both in Spain and in many other countries, unemployment rates, temporary and precarious employment, as well as lower salaries, affect women more strongly than men, the probability of falling into poverty in single-parent households made up of women and children is much higher than in other households.

In the second half of the 1990s, there were important changes in the characteristics of single-parent families, which were evidenced by an increase in poverty levels. The poverty rate of single-parent households is 35% in the EU-15, while in Spain it exceeds 40%. In fact, one in three single-parent households in our country has to spend the year with an income of less than 9,000 euros. On the other hand, Spain is one of the European countries that devotes the least resources to social benefits for the family and children. Thus, while the average for this group is 8% of total social spending, this type of benefit consumes no more than 2.2% of total social spending in Spain.

The composition of the single-parent nucleus is one of the variables that most affect the living conditions of its members. Living with other people outside the nucleus, generally ascendants, is a strategy adopted by families with fewer resources to fight against precariousness. This increases the number of potential breadwinners in the household and, therefore, reduces the proportion of children living in households with no breadwinner. The high proportion of single parents living in complex households is an indicator of the low level of support families receive. However, this strategy to combat exclusion, typical of Mediterranean countries, has rather limited effects at the European comparative level.


The study shows that parents heading single-parent households have living conditions that are on the whole inferior to those of parents living with a partner, and this has a major impact on their children’s life chances. In addition, there are not only inequalities between children living with both parents and those living with their father or mother, but also between those who experience different forms of single parenthood. The study highlights that the living conditions, school dropout rates and expectations for the future development of children in Spain depend, to a large extent, on the type of family nucleus in which they grow up. The low spending on benefits and services for families in general is more detrimental to the most vulnerable families -such as single-parent families- than to other family units, and constitutes one of the factors associated with the high levels of child poverty.

Given the consolidation of single-parent families as a normal and legitimate phenomenon, responses are needed to minimize the cost of these options not only for those affected but also for the population as a whole. One of the conclusions of the study is that in order to guarantee equal opportunities for children, welfare states should adopt more child-oriented social policies and undertake far-reaching reforms. The welfare of children and adults living in single-parent households depends to a large extent on how they are treated by the governments of each country and how and to what extent the gaps between emerging social structures and existing welfare state provisions are bridged.