6. Supporting single-parent families

Regardless of the diverse causes for single parenthood, single-parent families are among the most vulnerable household types, along with large families (European Commission, 2019[1]). On average across OECD countries, 32.5% of single adult households with at least one child live in poverty, compared to 9.8% among households with two or more adults and at least one child (Figure 6.1). In Spain, the shares are respectively 40.2% and 19.0%.

While data collection and country demographics should include single parents in order to better understand how to support them through policy measures, definitions tend to vary from country to country. Not all separated parents may fall into the single parent category depending on their partnership status and family structure. Single parenthood can result from separation, divorce or death of a parent, but also from the absence of a parent for prolonged periods (e.g. due to migration, incarceration or illness), unintended pregnancy, or the choice to raise a child alone. Since family structures evolve over time and single parenthood is not necessarily a permanent status, defining single-parent families as a social category raises multiple difficulties. Moreover, many definitions for the status of single parents fail to recognise situations of de facto single parenthood, such as situations where a parent is severely ill or living abroad.

Several factors contribute to the vulnerability of single-parent households, including difficult access to the labour market and an adequate income, multiple caring responsibilities, and, for some, lack of practical or emotional support from a partner (European Commission, 2019[1]). Many single parents face combined vulnerabilities. As such, policies to support single parents typically aim to accomplish two goals: balancing work and family and ensuring the economic well-being of these families. Such policies can include social assistance, universal or targeted economic benefits, and policies facilitating access to the labour market and promoting work-family balance.

Policies providing various forms of social assistance to support single parents include higher rates of general social assistance based on income; housing assistance; acknowledging the additional vulnerability of single parents as well as addressing parental obligations in case of separation/ divorce such as ensuring financial support from second parents or by the state. For instance, Austria, France and Ireland provide a special benefit or tax credit for single parents, on top of other allowances (European Commission, 2019[1]). In the United Kingdom, single-parent families may be eligible for other forms of benefits based on income, rather than specific to their status as single-parent families. In most countries, payment of child maintenance is a legal obligation and non-payment is usually sanctioned, ranging from enforced payment or salary deductions to imprisonment (see also the section on Obligations and support to the non-custodial parent below for a more detailed discussion on this topic).

Single parents rely on various sources of income. Even though earnings from employment are the main source of single parents’ income, their earnings can be supplemented by targeted benefits. Family benefits targeted to single-parent families top up their income from work and therefore pull them above the poverty line, while this is not necessarily the case for coupled-parent families (Nieuwenhuis, 2020[2]). Universal or targeted economic benefits accessed by single parents may include, cash transfers (income tested family benefits and non-income-tested cash benefits); child tax benefits or other tax benefits for families; specific benefits or assistance for single-parent households (special allowances, additional benefits or tax credit for single parents, in addition to other allowances); and higher rates of family allowance for single-parent households (receive higher amounts of family allowances than two-parent families, and sometimes of other related benefits). In some EU Member States, for instance in Italy and Portugal, single parents may not have any special benefit, but instead receive higher amounts of family allowances than two-parent families, and sometimes of other related benefits (European Commission, 2019[1]).

Labour force participation of a single parent offers the best protection against poverty for children. Policies facilitating access to the labour market and promoting work-family balance include access to early childhood education; access to after school care and extra-curricular activities represent a similar support mechanism for single parents struggling to combine work and care responsibilities; maternity and parental leave schemes; in-work benefits; and flexible working hours and access to part-time work. For single-parent families, ECEC can be particularly helpful, and flexible opening hours may make it easier to combine work and care responsibilities for young children without external support. Some Member States offer special leave provisions for single parents to help them combine parenthood and labour market participation. For instance, the Slovak Republic offers an extended period of maternity leave for single mothers, whereas in Greece, the period of parental leave is double for single parents. The Czech Republic offers longer periods of long-term care leave for children under the age of 10 to single-parent families (European Commission, 2019[1]).

In practice, mechanisms implemented by countries may include a combination of universal benefits for families in precarious situations, and targeted policies to support the specific needs of single-parent families. Many countries are “targeting within universalism” when, for example, there is a universal family allowance supplemented by specific assistance for specific groups, particularly single-parent families. Transfers and benefits are often indispensable for single parents, even when they are working. Child support (i.e. transfers between households) are associated with modest poverty reductions, whereas family benefits reduces poverty among single parents much more (in some countries, substantially more) (Nieuwenhuis, 2020[2]).

In the OECD area, almost all countries (except Turkey) provide support for low-income single-parent families, and that through a range of social policy measures, including family benefits, social assistance, housing benefits, in-work benefits and tax breaks (Figure 6.2). Spain is the only country that supports low-income single-parent through tax breaks only, without any additional income support. The main components of transfer income in other countries are income-tested family benefits and non-income-tested cash benefits; the latter are usually paid in respect of children. In ten OECD countries (Denmark, Finland, France, Lithuania, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, and Sweden) transfers exceed 30% of the net income of low-income single-parent families. Seventeen countries have cash housing benefits for rented accommodations and 11 countries offer in-work benefits. Most of the financial support is means tested and the support is reduced at higher wages. It should be noted that subsidies and the cost of childcare are not taken into account in these simulations, which are likely to be of particular importance to single parents.

Analysis by Bradshaw, Keung and Chzhen (2018[3]) shows that child poverty in single-parent families is reduced by social transfers in every EU country. Denmark, Finland and the United Kingdom reduced the poverty rate (i.e. the share in poverty) among children in single-parent households by over 65% thanks to transfers, whereas Ireland and the United Kingdom reduced the poverty gap (i.e. how far they are below the poverty threshold) among children in single-parent households by over 80%. In addition, Morissens (2018[4]) shows that countries that combine (generous) universal benefits with supplementary family benefits towards single parents – based on their status, not their income – have the best results in terms of reducing poverty (i.e. Denmark, Finland and Norway). However, employment is equally important, and the countries with the best outcomes for single parents are also those with sufficient and affordable day-care provisions in place. Without these provisions, single parents’ employment becomes a true challenge.

Bradshaw, Keung and Chzhen (2018[3]) also discuss the importance to verify whether taxes and benefits do not offset each other. Some countries (Austria, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway and the United Kingdom) have higher cash benefits for single parents, but then undermine that advantage by taking those benefits into account when assessing housing benefits.

Box 6.1 provides further details about the range of support measures that are provided to single parent households in France.

Child support (or child maintenance) is a regular money payment made by the non-resident parent to the resident parent following the end of a relationship, or if a relationship has not formed. In theory, child support payments should mitigate some of the lower earning opportunities that many single parents face, and most OECD countries have formal child-support systems that aim to ensure compliance of non-resident parents with their payment obligations. In reality, however, parents often breach their child support obligations, and the enforcement of support orders is frequently ineffective. Strengthening the enforcement of child maintenance obligations is a particularly important policy tool for improving the situation of single-parent households. It is relatively easy to implement, at a relatively low cost for the government.

Child support payments make up for an important source of the income of single parent families: they represent on average 14% of the available income of the receiving household in the OECD (OECD, 2011[5]; Beaumont, Mason and Schulze, 2014[6]). This share would even be higher if the full amount of child support due was paid. Child support tends to be more important for lower income parents. For example, among American custodial parents below the poverty line who receive full payments, the mean annual child support received in 2015 represented 58% of their mean personal income (Grall, 2018[7]). Child support payments are therefore key to prevent poverty in families with separated parents.

Non-payment (or delayed payment) of child support is common and pose significant challenges in all OECD countries, also in Spain. In France, between 30% and 40% of alimony payments due to families with children are unpaid or partially paid, and re-partnering and/or break-up with new partners are frequently the cause of the (temporary) suspension of child support payments (Favrat and Fernandez, 2016[8]). In the United States, only 43% of custodial parents receive the full amount that is due to them, whereas about 30% of them receive nothing at all (Grall, 2018[7]). On average, custodial parents with a child support order receive roughly 60% of their order amount.

As described in a recent report by the European Parliament (2020[9]), child support policies are generally complex and involve multiple parties. In most countries, the parents, court, and in about half of the countries public agencies are involved in determining the level of child support payments (Table 6.1). The final responsibility for determining the support payments often lies with the court, either directly or in case the parents cannot come to a satisfactory agreement. There is a lot of cross-country variation in the determination of the payment levels, ranging from parental discretion based on informal guidelines in the Netherlands to a rigid formula in Denmark. Support generally ends when the child turns 18 or 21, with some exceptions for continued support for children in education (e.g. Czech Republic, Greece, Estonia) or children with a disability (Czech Republic and Poland). Most countries have the same child support arrangements irrespective whether parents have been married or not.

Repercussions for the non-payment of child maintenance by the non-custodial parent can range from enforced payment, salary deductions, seizure of assets and bank accounts, and, in some countries, imprisonment (Miho and Thévenon, 2020[10]). Child support can be guaranteed in some countries by the state (in Austria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Sweden); by local authorities (in the Czech Republic and Finland); by special funds (in Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland and Portugal); or by a special administrative agency (in Denmark, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom). Several countries, including Australia, Estonia (see Box 6.3), New Zealand, the United Kingdom and more recently France (see Box 6.4), have strengthened their systems to assist parents pursuing their claims and to help them take the appropriate administrative and/or legal steps. A similar reform is highly needed in Spain, to better support parents and ensure that they receive the monetary support they are entitled to.

While it is necessary to strengthen the enforcement of child maintenance obligations, helping non-custodial parents be self-sufficient is key to enabling them to fulfil their obligations regarding child support payments in the long-run (Berger, 2017[12]). Non-custodial parents may lack stable employment, work for low wages, or have a new family to support, which hampers their ability to comply with child support payments (Ha, Cancian and Meyer, 2018[13]). Providing vulnerable non-custodial parents with the employment and/or social supports they need to be self-sufficient reduces the risk of non-payment (Miho and Thévenon, 2020[10]). The provision of such self-sufficiency supports should be conditional on the payment of child support. Another option to strengthen support to non-custodial parents is to include non-resident children in the calculation of means-tested benefits and/or to child related tax allowances (Berger, 2017[12]). Evidence suggests that arrangements to facilitate the payment of child support arrears work as incentives to enter and remain in employment, enhancing the ability to comply with child alimony payment obligations (Heinrich, Burkhardt and Shager, 2011[14]).

Self-sufficiency can also be enhanced by ensuring that the child-related costs of children born by the non-custodial parents are taken into account when setting up eligibility criteria for welfare benefits and that changes in child support payments do not lead to drastic reductions in social assistance payment (Skinner et al., 2017[15]). Social protection in some countries has taken a step in this direction. For instance, in France, following a decision by the Conseil d’Etat in 2017, each parent can now receive a housing allowance in cases of shared custody. The amount granted is calculated based on the period during which each parent has the child in his or her own home during the year (Miho and Thévenon, 2020[10]).

As a result of more disputes being brought to court there are typically longer waiting periods for disputes to be resolved and higher legal costs. Mediation can provide a faster alternative to families and is usually cheaper than ordinary court proceedings. Family mediation has become a common method of assisting separated parents who find it hard to establish mutually acceptable co-parenting arrangements (Morris and Halford, 2014[16]). Family mediation involves a professional who assists in the process of resolving disputes and drafting a family settlement agreement. There is an assumption that an agreement negotiated by the co-parents will be implemented more effectively than a parenting agreement imposed by the courts (Morris et al., 2018[17]; Emery, 2011[18]).

The European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice published a handbook for mediation law-making in Europe in 2019 which includes examples of best practices, recommendations on the drafting of laws on mediation, guidelines and methods of efficiently implementing mediation into practice (European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice, 2019[19]). For example, in order to ensure the high quality of mediation some EU countries have implemented basic requirements and training in order to introduce a systematic approach towards the profession of mediators. An increasing number of legislators have introduced official lists of mediators to their respective national laws (Austria, Croatia, Lithuania, Turkey) and other countries choose to maintain at least a list limited to the scope of court-related mediations (Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia). The initiation process of mediation differs in EU countries, participants may join the process voluntarily or be mandated by the court as a condition of the legal proceedings. In addition, the cost of mediation for families differ country to country. In many countries mediation is offered to families free of charge or subsidies through legal aid (Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Poland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, England, Wales and Scotland).

In Spain, some regional authorities started providing family mediation services in addition to other related services such as meeting points for highly conflictive divorces, court orders naming a parenting co-ordinator for shared custody and even compulsory family therapy orders. In all regions, with the exception of Asturias and Galicia, mediation services are listed as services used to prevent and resolve family conflicts without recourse to the justice system. For example, the Catalonian region has a law on family mediation dating from 2001, and 12 other Autonomous Communities have approved their family mediation laws since then. However, the uptake of family mediation services remains low in Spain.

To incentivise the use of mediation and increase the uptake, mandatory mediation elements in the judicial system like in Italy (see Box 6.5) might be useful. The country experienced a significant increase in the use of these services when mediation became a condition precedent to trial in certain categories of cases (De Palo et al., 2014[20]).

In addition to family mediation, alternative dispute resolution can play a crucial role in family disputes, it may reduce psychological harm, help the parties to start talking again and thereby, in particular, help ensure the protection of children (European Parliament, 2011[21]). Alternative dispute resolution may also include the larger family unit or support systems in the process of creating an agreement.

For those who have been victims of intimate partner violence, the fear and intimidation they feel towards the other co-parent may make it difficult for a meaningful participating in mediation. While there is more need for research on the impacts of intimate partner violence on the mediation process, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe considers that issues concerning violence among couples or families should not be dealt in the mediation process (like in France, for instance – see Box 6.5), as they could constitute criminal offences and in these circumstances the use of the mediation process would not be the most appropriate way of resolving family disputes (Council of Europe, 2004[22]). The concept of the mediation requires that there is no power imbalance between the positions of the participants as in for example, in domestic violence cases. The handbook on mediation law-making from the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice encourages that disputes of a sensitive nature (such as family mediation in cases of domestic violence or victims-offender mediation) are not excluded in their entirety (European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice, 2019[19]). The handbook suggests to introduce safeguards instead (through the duties of the mediator or criteria based on which the judge can recommend or order parties to try mediation) in order to protect the weaker party.

Overall, it is important to highlight that there is still limited data availability on the use of mediation in EU countries (ChildONEurope Secretariat, 2005[23]). Most available data come from the judicial system and refers to separating couples which already started court proceedings, either consensual or contended. These data therefore do not cover requests addressed to other institutions, agencies and organisations dealing with divorce such as independent social workers, family mediation bodies, and other legal and consultancy services, which are often contracted extra-court.


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