Single Parents Competing in a Dual-Earner Society. Leveling the Playing FieldISER External Seminars

Ongoing debates about high and rising inequality largely ignore aspects of gender and family diversity. The rise of women’s earnings, in part supported by the dual-earner / dual caregiver model, is known to have reduce income inequality between households – at least when it comes to couples. This paper will examine what the impact of the rise of the dual-earner family model has been on the position in the income distribution of various household types – including relative income position of single adults, single parents and “breadwinner couples”. While often the dual-earner model is supported by work-family reconciliation policies such as public childcare, (a.) countries differ regarding the amount of public childcare investment they provide, and (b.) dual-earner couples differ with regards to their joint working hours and occupational homogamy. These differences are theorized and empirically accounted for.

Using pooled cross-sectional data from the LIS Database, that allows following 20 OECD countries from 1984 to 2010, this study tests two contrasting hypotheses. The competition hypothesis reads that the rise of dual-earner households poses an insurmountable competition for a position in the income distribution to single earners (single adults, single parents and single-earner couples), thus increasing the sorting of household types across the income distribution. The spillover hypothesis is based on the notion that the rise of the dual-earner model represents an adaptation of society to the changing economic roles of women. The rise of the dual-earner/dual caregiver model of family policy (e.g. work-family reconciliation policies), decreasing the size of the gender pay gap, and longer work histories before becoming single (parent) contribute to the economic position of singles – and in particular single mothers. Understood this way, the rise of the dual-earner model, may be expected to have strengthened the economic position of those who need it the most – households with only a single earner – thus integrating various household types across the income distribution. The results show that in societies with a larger share of dual-earner families, single parents and singles are at a substantial economic disadvantage, both in terms of their position in the income distribution and in terms of being at-risk-of-poverty (AROP). Only in the context of (a.) above-average investments in public childcare, and (b.) above-average levels of minimum-income protection was the disadvantage of the dual-earner society for single parents and singles ameliorated. These findings help explain, for instance, the exceptionally high poverty rates of single parents in the United States, a society with a high rate of dual earners, with little support in terms of public childcare and minimum income protection.

Presented by:

Prof. Rense Nieuwenhuis (Institute for Social Research (SOFI) at Stockholm University)

Date & time:

2 Mar 2022 12:30 pm - 2 Mar 2022 13:30 pm


Remotely via Zoom - contact the series organisers (at if you do not have the link

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