Solo Parenting Around the World

Kids do better with two parents than with one, generally speaking. That's true everywhere. Because kids are a lot of work everywhere.

But I often hear from Americans who seem to think we have an unusually large number of single parents. And they blame our tradition of single parenting for our problems. And it's true that about 4 in 10 US babies are born to unmarried women. But that alone is not what causes so many problems for kids.

In fact, the rate of babies born to single women in America is about average for the world (and for Europe specifically). In fact, a slightly higher percentage of kids are born to single women in Finland than in America. This is worth repeating: Finland, the place with some of the best and most equitable education results in the world, has a greater share of babies born to unmarried mothers than the US.

Estonia, which also crushes the US educationally, has an even higher rate of non-marital births than Finland. In fact, you look at a chart of non-marital births ranked by country, you'll see that education outcomes seem almost unrelated to marriage around the world. 

In Greece, for example, almost every baby is born to a married woman. Happy days. But Greece has terrible education outcomes. Marriage, it turns out, does not make your family smarter. In the Netherlands, meanwhile, fewer than half of babies are born to married women, but the country has remarkable education results.

How to explain it? Well, it turns out that the toxic part of single parenting is the poverty that goes with it. And in some countries, single parenting is easier--even if you don't have a job.

For example, 1 out of every 3 French children living with a nonworking, single parent is poor. In the US, the rate is 9 out of 10. There is a reason for this, as Eduardo Porter at the New York Times explains:

"The French government devotes about 3 percent of its total economic activity to what the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development calls family benefits. That is four times the share spent in the United States. Government transfers have typically reduced the child poverty rate to under 10 percent, according to O.E.C.D. figures. In the United States, they shave it by only a few percentage points."

In other words, single parenting in America is much harder than single parenting in France--or Finland--and that's largely because the government devotes fewer resources to keeping its most vulnerable citizens out of poverty.

Now, before we go getting all Francophile, let me point out that low poverty does not make a country smarter, either. It is not enough. In fact, France's educational resultsare not much better than the US. A kid is way better off being born poor in Canada than in France (or the US) when it comes to her lifelong chances. Why? Because schools still need to be good, even if there's less poverty. These things interact.

But in a time of growing automation and globalization, income stability is increasingly important for kids' life chances. If parents cannot expect to keep a job for more than a year or two, and if the skills they need will keep changing every year, there will be more tumult in the lives of their children. Guaranteed. Governments can choose to soften that tumult in various ways, some of which work better than others, but those policies matter as much or more than the structure of the family.

When I tell people this, they often seem vaguely bummed. It's almost like they want to blame the family, the decline of civilization, the end of marriage, etc. When I tell them it's something much easier to fix, they look dissatisfied. It's a cultural bias that I encounter again and again. Until it changes, I don't see our child poverty rate changing much either.