In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Single Parents in Context

  • Introduction

Sociology Single Parents in Context
Laurie C. Maldonado, Rense Nieuwenhuis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0220


One of the most pressing challenges of single-parent families is the concern for their socioeconomic well-being. Single-parent families are more likely to be poor than two-parent families, and there is growing concern about the rising inequality among family types. Much research has focused on how children fare in single-parent families and whether or not they are at a disadvantage. However, concerns are not limited to children living in single-parent families, but also to single parents themselves. Single parenthood is strongly gendered: single parents are mostly mothers, and they therefore experience unequal opportunities and gender discrimination in the labor market. This bibliography addresses the key issues and debates related to single-parent families. Rather than promoting a single argument, it introduces the reader to a number of different perspectives, without taking a position on one perspective over the other. As the single-parent literature is broad and expanding rapidly, it is difficult to cover all aspects of single parenthood. Instead, this bibliography focuses on single-parent families in context. It covers how individual characteristics of single parents, such as their resources and education, shape aspects of their well-being. Yet the main focus is on how their well-being is also shaped by their socioeconomic and institutional context. How do employment and policy affect the lives of single parents and their children? The bibliography uses a comparative focus to examine the research on single-parent families across countries. Hence, it does not include all publications that address single parenthood, such as the social psychological aspects, but rather it examines the literature that best captures how single parents are doing in the context of the institutions and policies that surround them. This bibliography on “Single Parents in Context” is structured in six major sections. First, a broad overview of the literature is provided in the section on General Contributions This covers what can be considered Classics in the literature, and prior Research Overviews. The second section deals with aspects of the Socioeconomic Well-Being of single parents and their families, including Poverty, Child Well-Being, and Stigma. The next major sections (a substantial part of the bibliography) cover explanations for the often impaired well-being among single-parent families. These sections include resource-based, employment-based, and policy-based explanations. Resource-Based Explanations focus on individual characteristics of the single parents themselves, and include the debate regarding the important Diverging Destinies and Life-Course Perspective. Diverging Destinies suggests that single-parent families are increasingly common among those with lower socioeconomic resources, such as education. Life-Course Perspective discusses the dynamic process of single parenthood over the life course, such as transitions into and out of single parenthood. Employment-Based Explanations examine to what extent, and under which conditions, a job can be a means to improve single parents’ well-being. Employment is indeed important, because in some contexts single parents are employed but remain in poverty—considered the Working Poor. Additionally, single parents face particular challenges in terms of Work-Life Balance and negotiating the demands of work and family. Most importantly, this bibliography covers a wide range of policies and emphasizes various Policy-Based Explanations. Family Policy facilitates maternal employment and, increasingly, paternal care, as well as providing financial transfers to families with children. Active Labor Market Policy represents those policies that are often in the form of services, such as job placement and training. Such policy seeks to facilitate the employment of the inactive and unemployed. Redistributive Policy typically provides income transfers to help families financially sustain themselves. This is support from the social safety net in the form of cash assistance such as housing, food, and child benefit. Naturally, there is overlap between policy types, but family policy for families with children warrants a specific focus. There is also a focus on Child Support, which is a set of policies that regulates financial transfers among households of separated parents. This is followed by Policy Debates, a discussion that emphasizes the key debates around the design and implementation of policy for single-parent families. The final major section, Research Frontiers, lays out the frontiers in single-parent research. It highlights the potential major challenges and opportunities for research in years to come. These areas include Shared Parenting, Methodological Innovations, and Global Perspectives on what works for single parents and their families.

General Contributions

General contributions includes Classics and Research Overviews on single parenthood. Classic literature covers cornerstone pieces that have significantly contributed to shaping the field. These pieces stand out and many have stirred debates in the literature that are still present today. The research overviews provide a summary of important areas in the comparative literature on single-parent families.

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