Singled Out or Drawn In? Social
Polices and Lone Mothers’
University of Mannheim
Although it is no longer a symbol of socially degenerate behavior in many societies, single
motherhood remains associated with numerous risks and disadvantages. In addition to their
disadvantages in the labor market and their greater risk of poverty, single mothers also tend to
be less politically active. This article explores the patterns of single mothers’ electoral
participation across 25 European countries. In addition to the individual-level
characteristics that shape the likelihood of taking part in an election, public policies can
also do a great deal to encourage political involvement. Drawing on data from the
European Social Survey combined with national family and labor market policies, I
examine the ways in which policies aiming to reconcile the responsibilities at work and
home can draw single mothers into political engagement. I find that early childhood
expenditures and cash benefits to families are positively related to single mothers’
Keywords: Family policy, lone mothers, welfare state, political participation, multilevel
analysis, survey research, policy feedback
Single motherhood, although in many societies no longer of a symbol of
socially degenerate behavior, remains associated with numerous risks
and disadvantages. Single mothers experience disadvantages in the labor
market and are at greater risk of poverty. They also tend to be less
politically active, which is most visible with regard to their electoral
participation. Politics has traditionally not been particularly attentive to
or generous regarding the needs of single mothers as either women or
mothers. Social policies in many societies continue to follow a male
breadwinner model based on a gendered division of labor within the
Published by Cambridge University Press 1743-923X/19 $30.00 for The Women and Politics Research Section of the
American Political Science Association.
#The Women and Politics Research Section of the American Political Science Association, 2019
Politics & Gender, (2019), page 1 of 27
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household (Korpi 2000;Lewis1992; Millar and Rowlingson 2001). In this
article, I investigate single mothers’ voting behavior by comparatively
analyzing the impact of social policies on their likelihood of
participating in an election. I therefore ask whether family policies
aimed at reconciling the responsibilities at the workplace and home can
foster the political participation of women whose resources would
otherwise predict electoral abstention.
Disadvantage not only depresses overall political participation but also
tends to exert the biggest impact on people with the fewest resources.
Because those with greater resources are the most likely to participate
politically, when these aggregate resources are more unevenly
distributed, so, too, is voter turnout (Solt 2008). Beyond the importance
of individual resources, the influence of public policy on political
participation must also be considered (Detraz and Peksen 2018). This
idea, known as the policy feedback approach, emphasizes that policies
influence recipients much like formal political institutions do. They, too,
can transmit norms and impose rules and regulations and can thereby
transform politics itself (Campbell 2012). Policies can confer material
benefits upon people; that is, greater resources enhance participatory
capacity. Moreover, policy commitments to women and families can
send the message that their interests are protected and valued, thereby
enhancing political efficacy, which is viewed as essential for democratic
political engagement (Mettler and Soss 2004).
This study contributes to the literature on political participation by
examining the ways in which family policies influence single mothers’
decisions to vote in 25 European countries. By looking at broader sets of
policies over a large group of countries, this study sheds light on how
policies can shape the political participation of vulnerable groups by
investigating whether family policies moderate the relationship between
single mothers’ resources and political participation. Following a
discussion of voting and single motherhood, I discuss the effects of
public policy on political participation. After deriving the hypotheses, I
introduce the data, variables, and methods used. To test the relationships
between single mothers’ voting propensity and family policies, I compare
individual decisions to vote in 25 European democracies using logistic
multilevel analysis. Additional analyses examine the marginal effects of
the policies on voting for different income groups to test whether a
uniform effect is exerted across groups, or if the effect varies in strength
(or even direction) depending on a woman’s income. I conclude with a
discussion of the results as well as opportunities for future research.
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SINGLE MOTHERS’ ELECTORAL PARTICIPATION
The people with the fewest resources, such as education, income, or social
networks, are also those who are the least likely to vote (Brady, Verba, and
Scholzman 1995). Although the gender gap in voting has dissipated
significantly over the past decades (Abendscho
¨n and Steinmetz 2014;
Bennett and Bennett 1989; Burns 2002), being part of a partnership has
long been found to increase the likelihood that one will take part in
politics (Campbell et al. 1960). For example, people who live with a
partner have the advantage that they can discuss upcoming elections
with another adult in the household, which can increase interest in
politics (Beck 1991). Spouses and partners may furthermore be
persuasive in getting the other partner to vote (Stoker and Jennings
1995), and they can consolidate the administrative tasks involved with
registering or filling out absentee ballots (Wolfinger and Wolfinger
2008). Dissolution of a partnership may entail the loss of a mobilizing
partner. Divorced, widowed, and single parents are at greater risk of
social isolation, which has also been shown to drive down turnout rates
(Hobbs, Christakis, and Fowler 2014). Because divorce frequently results
in stress and disrupted family routines, going to vote may not top the
´e’s list of priorities, particularly when young children are
involved. “Family intensive” stages of life have been found to be
associated with lower levels of political engagement (Quaranta and Dotti
Wolfinger and Wolfinger (2008) find that within a year after the
dissolution of their marriage, 40%–50% of women in the United States
move; changing one’s place of residency, in turn, is associated with a
decreased likelihood of voting (Kern 2010). Turning specifically to
single parents, raising children alone invariably requires a time
commitment that may not allow for political participation. Although it
does not require an ongoing commitment on the part of the voter, voting
is nevertheless an act that must be scheduled into one’s day and may
require prior registration. Wolfinger and Wolfinger (2008) show that
separated parents had an 11% lower turnout rate in the 2000 US
presidential election than their married counterparts, and of the persons
who had never been married, fewer than half voted.
Having children outside of marriage has also been shown to depress the
probability of voting. Single parents, particularly women, tend to be
younger (Wu, Bumpass, and Musick 2001) and have less education
(Korenman, Kaestner, and Joyce 2001), two factors negatively related to
LONE MOTHERS’ POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT 3
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voting. Single mothers are also at a much greater risk of poverty than
childless and partnered individuals, a pattern that holds true in nearly all
countries, albeit to varying degrees (Brady and Burroway 2012). In other
words, the intersection of lone parenthood, be it by choice, death, or
divorce/separation, and single mothers’ disproportionately low levels of
both income and education does not bode well for their likelihood of
Although those with greater resources (Brady, Verba, and Scholzman
1995; Verba and Nie 1972; Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980) participate
more than those with fewer resources, regardless of socioeconomic
background, single mothers’ electoral participation tends to be
comparatively lower. Moreover, despite EU gender-equality targets,
increased female labor-market participation and educational attainment,
as well as an evolving view of modern families, this group of women is
generally less politically involved. Although they are at greater relative
risk of poverty, the degree of risk varies markedly across European
countries, from around 2% in Sweden and Finland to nearly 15% in the
United Kingdom and Italy (Mirsa et al. 2012). Beyond the well-
documented individual characteristics that may hinder electoral
participation, the question now involves how the political context affects
single mothers’ turnout.
Public Policy and Single Mothers
Citizens’ participation can influence the outcomes of politics, but do the
policy outcomes themselves influence political engagement? Campbell
(2003) argues that they do: Policies can have both negative and positive
effects on participation. First, they may distribute (and redistribute) the
resources needed for political mobilization that might otherwise be
lacking. Policies can also motivate people to become interested in
politics due to the personal stakes that policies have for people’s lives. If a
policy targets a program that directly affects the individual, he or she may
be more likely to take part in politics due to personal stakes. Policies may
therefore pique interest in certain issues or politics in general (Shore
Policies have the potential to foster political and civic skills (Mettler,
2002). “Depending on their design features, public policies of many
types may help citizens learn how to deal effectively with government
and allow them to experience the art of collective policy decisions”
(Mettler and Soss 2004, 62). Moreover, policies can have interpretive
effects: They may send signals to groups that they are entitled to certain
benefits, goods, or services (Pierson 1993). The messages policies send
can inform citizens about their standing in the community (Schneider
and Ingram 1997) or “whether the government is responsive to their
concerns, thereby encouraging engagement, passivity, or even
alienation” (Wichowsky and Moynihan 2008, 909; see also Mettler
2002; Soss 1999). The effects policies have on their citizens “feed back
into political systems, producing spirals in which groups’ participatory
and policy advantages (or disadvantages) accrue. Citizens’ relationships
with government, and their experiences at the hand of government
policy, help determine their participation levels and in turn, subsequent
policy outcomes” (Campbell 2003, 2).
FAMILY POLICIES IN EUROPE AND SINGLE MOTHERS’
Increasing female labor-market participation, shifting patterns of industrial
relations, and transformations of the family have posed enormous
challenges to models of social welfare centering on the male
breadwinner that emerged after World War II. Not only do women
comprise a much larger share of the labor force than 70 years ago, but
women are increasingly occupying the roles once dominated by men:
breadwinner and head of household. Esping-Andersen warns that despite
what appear to be positive and modernizing developments, without new
social policy, the new order of gender relations “may also be the
harbinger of new inequalities and possibly even of greater social
polarization” (2009, 3).
Single-parent households are no longer a novelty, nor are they
necessarily something that resulted from tragedy or the dissolution of a
marriage. In an era in which nearly half of all marriages end in
divorce, many women are choosing to remain unmarried. In short,
marriage and parenthood are increasingly becoming decoupled. Despite
these developments, it remains very difficult for women in many
countries to pursue both a career and the desire for motherhood without
a partner. The policies described in this section are a (nonexhaustive)
selection of attempts to reconcile work and care responsibilities. They
should have particular relevance for single mothers because they are
LONE MOTHERS’ POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT 5
arguably the ones who face some of the greatest hurdles in achieving this
Despite the recent development that women are outperforming men in
terms of educational attainment, their labor-force participation and
earnings continue to lag behind. When women have children, they are
likely to experience the so-called child penalty, that is, the loss of
potential earnings associated with becoming a mother. Due to birth-
related career interruptions and the responsibilities parents of young
children face, many women encounter substantial difficulties returning
to the labor force and/or their pre-child earning potential. This penalty is
greatest for women with high levels of education, as they have an overall
greater earning potential. Women with less education are also penalized;
their career interruptions tend to be longer and more frequent (Esping-
Andersen 2009). Adding to this situation is the trend that rates of divorce
and single motherhood tend to be increasingly skewed toward women
with fewer resources. Although divorce is clearly negatively related to
education in the United States, this relationship is not nearly as strong in
Europe, with some countries even exhibiting a weakly positive
relationship between divorce and educational attainment. That being
said, the negative relationship is a fairly recent phenomenon; the risk of
divorce has increased for people with lower levels of education if they
married after 1940 (Dronkers 2015). The patterns of education and
single motherhood vary across European states, and in countries where
single motherhood remains a relatively rare phenomenon, an
educational gradient is not found (Ha
¨nen 2017). However, an
increased risk of poverty and material and social deprivation has occurred
across all European states. Although the magnitude of this risk varies
across countries, single mothers are nevertheless at greater risk than two-
parent households, and this holds for all countries.
Because unemployment, low educational attainment, and single
motherhood all tend to disproportionately cluster among the lowest
income deciles, the prognosis for single mothers’ political participation
does not look too promising. The economic disadvantages this group of
mothers faces are likely to spill over into the political sphere, a
development which could ultimately leave these women with but a faint
whisper of a political voice. If, on the other hand, single mothers have
ways in which to reconcile their work aspirations with their
responsibilities as mothers and are thus integrated both into the labor
market and society as a whole, the negative effects of single motherhood
on political participation should be far less pronounced.
The welfare state insures againstrisks associated with single motherhood,
insurance that a spouse or partner, with a second income and childrearing
support, could otherwise provide. How strong the negative impact of lone
motherhood will be on these women’s political participation depends
partly on the extent to which the state can counter the socioeconomic
penalty of single motherhood (Ha
¨nen 2017). What can the state due
to reduce this penalty? Lewis (2006) argues that a combination of time,
money, and services are necessary to secure gender equality and to give
women real choice in terms of their roles as mothers and their
participation in the public sphere. Time covers both time to work and
time to care; money is needed both for purchasing child care and to
cover the increased costs that raising children entails; services generally
center on child care. In examining family policies and their impact on
single mothers’ political participation, I draw on Lewis’ three dimensions
and add a fourth — policies that aim to improve single mothers’ labor
Maternity leave programs are extremely important to all mothers, single
and partnered. However, not all leave programs are equally generous. If
paid maternity leave is too short, mothers may opt to remain out of the
labor force longer because the costs of child care may exceed her benefit
of returning to work after a short period. This effect should be most
acute for low-skilled and low-earning single mothers. The literature on
maternity leave also tends to find that maternity leave that is too long
may pose challenges for women trying to re-enter the labor market after
such a long period away. However, the problem of leave length is only a
problem if the leave is not sufficiently funded (Esping-Andersen 2009;
Lewis 2006; Mirsa, Moller, and Budig 2007). Generous leave programs
are thus thought to positively affect single mothers’ electoral
participation, since they have been shown to bolster women’s labor-
market attachment (Ruhm 1998). Such policies may also send the
message to women that their skills both as employees and their
responsibilities as mothers are valued and protected, thereby enhancing
their political efficacy. Thus, I have formulated the following hypothesis
and its corollary:
:Greater leave generosity should be associated with a greater
likelihood of voting.
LONE MOTHERS’ POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT 7
:The positive effect of leave programs is strongest for women with
As their future earning potential is lower, low income mothers are less
able to put money aside for incidentals, such as birth-related career
interruptions. Thus, they stand to benefit most from the poverty reducing
effects of paid leave (Nieuwenhuis and Maldonado 2015).
Family Cash Benefits
In addition to the time a single mother needs to care for young children,
she also incurs additional costs associated with things such as feeding,
clothing, housing, and educating a child. Beyond the benefits she may
receive during her maternity leave, cash transfers are important to defray
the costs later on. The aim of cash transfers for families is to generally
reduce inequalities between families with and without children.
Although transfers that are based on means testing may result in a high
marginal tax rate in the case of dual-earner households, and thereby
provide a disincentive for a mother to remain employed (Rubery et al.
1997), this negative incentive should not apply to lone-parent
households. Cash transfers have furthermore been shown to be extremely
effective in reducing single-parent poverty (Bradshaw, Keung, and
Chzhen 2018; Maldonado and Nieuwenhuis 2015). If sufficiently
generous, transfers low-income single mothers receive may greatly
reduce the socioeconomic penalty of single motherhood. They are
furthermore likely to create personal stakes for recipients who rely on
them, thereby increasing the saliency of politics for their everyday lives.
Due to the resources and personal stakes generated by cash transfers as
well as their potential to send messages to their recipients that their
needs are valid and heard, I hypothesize the following:
:Single mothers are expected to be more likely to vote in countries
where family cash expenditures are greater.
:The benefits of these policies are greatest for women with low
incomes because their livelihoods depend on these transfers to a greater
Child care is arguably the most important dimension of the work/
care balance: Nearly all single and partnered parents need child care if
they are to participate in the labor market. However, the availability
and affordability is even more crucial for single mothers because they do
not have the option of weighing the costs of caring or working across a
dual earner household. If child care is too costly or places for her
children are not available, a single mother may need to rely on transfers
rather than working. By financing or subsidizing child care, particularly
for children under the age of three, the state is able to directly combat
the child penalty. Mirsa et al. (2007) reported that child care is
particularly beneficial for reducing the poverty risk of young single
mothers. In their study of North American and European mothers, they
found that greater spending on child care strengthens women’s labor
market opportunities and decreases the risk of impoverishment. The
positive effect of childcare spending on women’s labor market
participation and incomes was greatest for women with fewer resources
because women who earned more were likely to be able to pay for child
care themselves. Generously state-funded or subsidized child care is
therefore thought to positively affect single mothers’ labor market
participation and overall resources. By enabling single mothers to work,
childcare investments may signal to them that their needs are valued,
which may foster political efficacy (Marx and Nguyen 2018). Moreover,
such programs should increase the saliency of politics because mothers
personally benefit from childcare subsidies. Thus, I posit the following
hypothesis and corollary:
:Single mothers are more likely to vote in countries that place a
greater policy focus on child care.
:This positive effect is greatest for low- and middle-income women,
that is, women who are less able to afford to privately purchase these services.
Active Labor Market Policies
Although not part of family policy per se, active labor market policies
(ALMPs) are designed to foster the labor market integration of low-
skilled and unemployed persons, two categories that single mothers
disproportionately occupy. As part of the new welfare policies that
emerged during the mid- to late 1990s and focused on full adult
LONE MOTHERS’ POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT 9
employment (Knijn, Martin, and Millar 2007), such policies may be able
to foster independence and emancipation through labor market
participation. Critics of ALMPs point out that they do not contribute to
social citizenship in the welfare state because they are needs based and
not rights based and that they challenge the no-strings-attached norms of
universalism. On the other hand, evidence from in-depth case studies of
ALMP programs in Norway and New Zealand report positive outcomes
for single parents’ employment as well as positive personal experiences
by participants who indicated that programs were sensitive to their
responsibilities as parents (Skevik 2005). Due to the particular relevance
of ALMPs in cases of job loss or low-paying work, their ability to reduce
poverty by facilitating employment, and the finding that single parents
are more likely to be employed in countries with a greater policy focus
on ALMPs (Esser and Olsen 2018), ALMPs should be of particular
relevance to single mothers with the fewest resources. In sum, I
hypothesize the following:
:Greater investment in ALMPs will foster low-income single mothers’
societal and labor market integration, which, in turn, positively influences
their likelihood to vote.
Data, Variables, and Methodological Approach
The remainder of article puts the hypothesized relationships between the
policies and the individual propensity to vote to the empirical test. The
following analyses examine single mothers’ electoral participation in 25
European countries: Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic,
Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary,
Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland,
Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the
United Kingdom. Data for the dependent variable, voting (yes/no), come
from the European Social Survey (ESS). Only respondents who
indicated that they were eligible to vote were included in the analyses.
Single mothers do not constitute large parts of overall populations in
Europe; moreover, they are likely to have been undersampled in the
ESS because face-to-face surveys require a considerable time
commitment, something single mothers often do not have. The rounds
have therefore been pooled over the period 2008 to 2012, comprising
rounds 4 through 6 of the ESS. The final sample consists of 3,136 single
10 JENNIFER SHORE
mothers between the ages of 18 and 54 — the ages between which family
policy would potentially have the greatest impact. A single mother is
defined as a female respondent who indicated having children in the
household and not living with a partner.
They accounted for
approximately 21% of all mothers with children in the home in the
sample in the same age range.
Table 1 provides an overview of single mothers along key characteristics
and provides a comparison with partnered mothers. Across all countries,
single mothers had lower incomes and education levels. Figure 1 shows
the average self-reported turnout for both single and partnered mothers
across 25 countries. The vertical line represents the average turnout for
all countries and mothers, 76%. The average turnout rate for single
mothers across all countries was 66.7% (partnered mothers have a
turnout rate of 78.7%). With but a few exceptions, partnered mothers
voted at higher rates than single mothers. These figures represent self-
reported electoral participation and do not perfectly correspond to actual
turnout rates. Although no reliable cross-country statistics on voting rates
of single mothers are available, it is quite likely that the self-reported
turnout for this group of women is overreported.
Table 1. Overview of single and partnered mothers
Single mothers Partnered mothers
N/% 3,136 / 20.8% 11,939 / 79.2%
Voted Yes: 66.7%
Low income: 60.4% Med: 72.7%
Low income: 66.2% Med.: 77.3%
Education Low: 23.7% Med.: 55.4% High: 20.0% Low: 17.3% Med.: 53.2% High:
Income Low: 52.6% Med.: 38% High: 9.4% Low: 15.7% Med.: 45.1% High:
Age Mean: 40.5 Mean: 39.8
Relationship Divorced: 48% Legally separated: 7.2%
Widowed: 9% Never married: 35.9%
Source: European Social Survey rounds 4– 6
1. The data did not permit me to identify whether a woman was in a noncohabitating relationship or
whether and to what extent she had contact with the other parent. The degree and type of contact with
the noncustodial parent has been shown, for example, to influence well-being (Ihinger-Tallman 2010)
and childrearing responsibilities (Braver and Lamb 2018).
2. Self-reported voting rates tend to be higher than official turnout due, for example, to issues of social
desirability and recall difficulties (Abelson, Loftus, and Greenwald 1992; Belli et al. 1999).
LONE MOTHERS’ POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT 11
To test the effects of family policy on single mothers’ voting, I examine the
impact of four policy variables. The macro-level explanatory variables refer
to the mean value between the years 2007 and 2011.
Leave generosity is
measured as the duration in weeks of maternity leave multiplied by the
replacement rate (i.e., the percentage of previous earnings). To capture
the money dimension of family policy, I considerd the total cash family
benefit expenditures as a percentage of the GDP. A state’s commitment
to family services is measured as the percentage of the GDP spent on
child care and early childhood education. Lastly, ALMPs were captured
as ALMP expenditure as a percentage of the GDP. The relevant data
were obtained available from the OECD’s Social Expenditure Database
as well as Eurostat’s European System of Integrated Social Protection
I controlled for a number of individual as well as contextual factors in the
analyses. At the individual level, the key variable of interest is a single
mother’s income; I hypothesized that the effects of the various family
FIGURE 1. Mothers’ self-reported voter turnout (Source: ESS rounds 4–6).
3. From a new institutionalist perspective, social policy change within certain bounds is expected
(Pierson 2001). That is, “while the notion of ‘path dependency’ allows for welfare spending/social
rights data to vary up and down, the more important expectation is that each nation will remain
within its existing cluster at each point in time” (Ku
¨hner 2007, 12).
12 JENNIFER SHORE
and employment policies may have differential effects depending on
income. Age, educational attainment (low, medium, or high),
employment status, and whether or not she lives in an urban area were
considered. These individual attributes, which mainly correspond to
resources, have been frequently identified in the extant literature as some
of the most prominent covariates of voting (Brady, Verba, and
Scholzman 1995; Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980). Finally, the
presence of other adults (and per definition of single mothers, a
nonspouse/-partner) in the household was also considered; other adults
are potentially political discussion partners (Beck 1991) or can help out
financially or with housework and child care.
I included additional country-level variables to account for the
differences in the electoral systems and sociocultural contexts. The
design of the electoral system has been shown to influence the calculus
of voting. Most prominently, highly disproportional electoral systems
tend to exert a dampening effect on electoral participation (Blais 2006;
Jackman and Miller 1995; Karp and Banducci 2008; Lijphart 1997). I
also controlled for the effect of compulsory voting laws (both their
severity and degree of enforcement) on the individual decision to vote
(data are from IDEA) (Franklin 1999; Panagopoulos 2008; Singh 2011).
Because the countries included have diverse histories, a variable
indicating whether a state has a socialist legacy was added. Finally, I
controlled for the share of women in the labor force to capture
differences in women’s employment patterns. A higher share of women
in the labor force indicates greater sociopolitical integration of women.
This information was obtained from the OECD.
I examined the effects of policies on the individual decision to
participate in an election. Since both the research question and the
nature of the data (individuals nested in national contexts) imply
hierarchical structures, multilevel analysis was the most appropriate
analytical technique. Because the dependent variable, whether or not
the respondent voted, is dichotomous, I used logistic multilevel
Beginning with a baseline model (model 1 in Table 2) with the individual
and country controls, the subsequent models tested the effects of the
various policy variables on single mothers’ electoral participation. The
LONE MOTHERS’ POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT 13
Table 2. Multilevel analyses of single mothers’ propensity to vote
model 1 model 2 model 3 model 4 model 5
est. (s.e.) est. (s.e.) est. (s.e.) est. (s.e.) est. (s.e.)
constant 21.434 21.253 20.594 21.429 20.566
(1.286) (1.294) (1.023) (1.189) (1.374)
age 0.041*** 0.041*** 0.041*** 0.041*** 0.041***
(0.005) (0.005) (0.005) (0.005) (0.005)
medium 0.431*** 0.430*** 0.421*** 0.415*** 0.439***
(0.102) (0.102) (0.102) (0.102) (0.102)
high 0.891*** 0.892*** 0.875*** 0.877*** 0.918***
(0.142) (0.142) (0.142) (0.142) (0.143)
medium 0.164* 0.163* 0.166* 0.169* 0.160*
(0.096) (0.096) (0.096) (0.096) (0.096)
high 0.310* 0.309* 0.318* 0.317* 0.304*
(0.170) (0.170) (0.169) (0.170) (0.170)
urban 0.018 0.019 0.021 0.015 0.022
(0.086) (0.086) (0.085) (0.086) (0.086)
employed 0.255*** 0.254*** 0.250*** 0.262*** 0.258***
(0.094) (0.094) (0.094) (0.094) (0.094)
adults in household 0.018 0.017 0.017 0.025 0.014
(0.095) (0.095) (0.095) (0.095) (0.095)
disproportionality 20.044 20.049 20.026 20.042 20.059*
(0.036) (0.036) (0.028) (0.033) (0.036)
compulsory voting 0.150 0.130 0.263*** 0.158 0.132
14 JENNIFER SHORE
Table 2. Continued
model 1 model 2 model 3 model 4 model 5
est. (s.e.) est. (s.e.) est. (s.e.) est. (s.e.) est. (s.e.)
(0.121) (0.122) (0.096) (0.111) (0.119)
female labor force 0.003 0.004 20.021 20.010 20.009
participation (0.018) (0.018) (0.015) (0.017) (0.019)
post-socialist 20.319 20.319 20.079 20.236 20.398
(0.268) (0.266) (0.210) (0.248) (0.286)
maternal leave generosity -0.000
early childhood 1.112***
family cash expenditures 0.340**
rho 0.067 0.066 0.033 0.054 0.062
BIC 3775.527 3782.898 3768.394 3778.462 3754.795
AIC 3690.818 3692.137 3677.633 3687.702 3664.174
N (indiv./country) 3136 / 25 3136 / 25 3136 / 25 3136 / 25 3107 / 24
Notes: Logistic regression, standard errors in parentheses. * p ,0.10, ** p ,0.05, *** p ,0.01
LONE MOTHERS’ POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT 15
last models (6 and 7) tested the hypotheses regarding group-specific effects:
Did the policy effects vary depending on income? I then calculated the
marginal effects of the policy variables on single mothers’ turnout for
each of the income groups. Because only 25 countries
were included in
the analyses and the country controls already added several level-2
variables, I did not test these policies simultaneously. Moreover,
multicollinearity between the policy variables was an issue.
Starting with model 1, many of the ‘usual suspects’ performed as
expected. Mirroring findings for the general population, single mothers
with both more income and education were more likely to vote. Age
positively influenced the propensity to vote. Although living in an urban
setting compared to a rural one appears to have had a negligible effect on
the likelihood of voting, employed mothers (compared to the unemployed)
were significantly more likely to have said they voted. The presence of
other adults in the household does not appear to have contributed to the
explanation of voting. The coefficients of the country controls, although
pointing in the right direction, were, with a few exceptions, insignificant
in the models.
Models 2 through 5 included the four policy variables discussed in the
previous section. Although the coefficient for maternal leave generosity
(model 2) was negative, indicating that more generous maternity leave
schemes negatively influenced a single mother’s likelihood of voting, this
effect was not significant. Since hypothesis 1 was not supported, its
corollary was not further tested. Likewise, moving to model 5, increased
spending on active labor market policies was negatively associated with
the probability that a single mother will vote. Support for hypothesis 4
was therefore not found. As in model 2, however, this policy effect
appears to have been negligible. Turning to models 3 and 4, the signs of
the coefficients corresponded with the hypothesized relationships: Both
an increase in early childhood expenditures and greater cash spending
on families were associated with an increased likelihood of taking part in
an election. These results are in accordance with the predictions of
hypotheses 2 and 3. The portion of the variance in voting activity that
could be attributed to differences between countries dropped from 6.7%
to 3.3% when early childhood expenditures were included and to 5.4%
when family cash expenditures were included.
Models 6 and 7 in Table 3, which included cross-level interactions
between the significant policy variables from models 3 and 4,
4. For reasons of data availability for ALMP expenditures, Greece was excluded from model 5.
16 JENNIFER SHORE
Table 3. Multilevel analyses of single mothers’ propensity to vote: Policy x
model 6 model 7
est. (s.e.) est. (s.e.)
constant 20.648 21.334
age 0.041*** 0.041***
medium 0.425*** 0.417***
high 0.872*** 0.880***
medium 0.015 20.039
high 0.200 20.020
urban 0.019 0.012
employed 0.250*** 0.261***
adults in household 0.017 0.026
disproportionality 20.024 20.041
compulsory voting 0.266*** 0.156
female labor force 20.019 20.010
participation (0.015) (0.017)
post-socialist 20.056 20.233
early childhood 0.908***
early childhood 0.503**
expenditures x med. income (0.255)
early childhood 0.423
expenditures x high income (0.552)
fam. cash expenditures 0.294*
fam. cash x med. income 0.097
LONE MOTHERS’ POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT 17
respectively, tested the hypotheses regarding group-specific effects (the
conditional hypotheses- H2a and H3a.). In other words, was the electoral
participation of single mothers with lower (or higher) incomes
influenced to a greater (or lesser) extent by the family policy measures?
The single coefficients for the policy variables showed the effect of that
policy on the voting likelihood of single mothers with the lowest
incomes — income deciles 1 to 3. In both models, the effects of
expenditures on both family cash benefits and early childhood services
were positive and highly significant for women in the lowest income
groups. The interaction terms in models 6 and 7 refer to the effects for
the two higher income categories. Interpreting the effects of interaction
terms, however, is not always a straightforward undertaking. Considering
first the significance of the interaction terms, we see whether the policy
effect on voting for the higher incomes categories is actually different
than the effect for the lowest category. In model 6, the effect of early
childhood expenditures on single mothers’ voting differed for women in
the middle-income group as compared to low-income mothers. The
effect for the group of highest earners was not significantly different than
that for low-income mothers. In model 7, the effect of cash expenditures
on voting likelihood was positive for all income groups. To determine
whether there were significant interaction effects for the income
categories, marginal effects for the respective groups were calculated.
The marginal effects of the family policies on the voting likelihood for
single mothers in different income groups can be found in Table 4. First
considering the effects of early childhood expenditures, regardless of
income, this type of government spending had a positive and significant
impact on single mothers’ propensity to vote. The effect was largest for
women in the middle-income categories. These results partially confirm
Table 3. Continued
model 6 model 7
est. (s.e.) est. (s.e.)
fam. cash x high income 0.168
rho 0.032 0.054
BIC 3780.358 3793.670
AIC 3677.496 3690.808
N (indiv./context) 3136 / 25 3136 / 25
Notes: Logistic regression, standard errors in parentheses. * p ,0.10, ** p ,0.05, *** p ,0.01
18 JENNIFER SHORE
hypothesis H3a. Although cash spending on families also had an across-the-
board positive effect on single mothers’ likelihood of voting, an increase in
family cash benefit outlays had the largest impact for women in the highest
income category. Hypothesis H2a is therefore not supported. Overall,
policies influenced single mothers’ likelihood of voting differently
depending on their income level. These differences are best illustrated
Figure 2 shows single mothers’ voting probabilities across the levels of
expenditure on early child care and preschool education as a percentage
of GDP. The likelihood of voting goes up for all income groups as
expenditures on young children increase, the effect is strongest for
women in middle-income groups. Even at the highest levels of
Table 4. Marginal effects of family policies by income level
Voted yes/no Early childhood expenditures Cash expenditures for families
Low income 0.184***
Medium income 0.267***
High income 0.241**
Standard errors in parentheses. * p,0.10, ** p,0.05, *** p,0.01.
Other values held at means.
FIGURE 2. Expenditures on early childcare and preschool and predicted turnout.
LONE MOTHERS’ POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT 19
expenditures, however, a gap between middle and higher income mothers
and lower income mothers is evident. Although this type of expenditure is
associated with an increased likelihood of voting, electoral participation
remains stratified by income. A similar and more pronounced pattern is
apparent in Figure 3, which illustrates single mothers’ voting
probabilities across levels of cash spending on families. Although all
groups of women are more likely to have voted in countries with more
generous family expenditures, the gap between rich and poor is wider.
These results do, however, require further testing. When dealing with a
relatively small number of countries, single level-2 units can quickly
exert a large effect on country-level effects. Further analyses not
presented here, wherein the full models were run repeatedly, each time
excluding 1 of the 25 countries, yielded results similar to those obtained
with all countries. I also tested models that included interactions with
mothers’ education and the policy variables (see also Stadelmann-Steffen
2011). Given that income and education tend to be closely related, these
results were very similar to the original model specification with income.
Single motherhood has a variety of causes; thus, I ran additional models
with controls for divorce/dissolved legal partnership, separation,
widowhood, and never having been married/in a legal partnership. The
FIGURE 3. Cash spending on families and children and predicted turnout.
20 JENNIFER SHORE
inclusion of these additional individual-level variables did not substantively
alter the results, nor were there differences found between the voting
likelihood of, for example, divorced versus widowed single mothers.
To test whether the results of the cash expenditure variable could be due
to the fact that it is a coarse-grained aggregate measure, I tested variations of
this variable using expenditures for means-tested and non– means-tested
family cash benefits (also available from the ESSPROS database). The
coefficient for means-tested expenditures was insignificant, although a
pattern similar to total cash benefits was found with regard to non–
means-tested expenditures. As benefits that are non–means-tested tend to
be more generous, it is likely that it is this portion of the total benefits
driving the significant relationship with voting. Finally, to explore
whether the effect is simply a general welfare state effect, I ran additional
models that incorporated dummy variables for welfare regime types
(Social Democratic, liberal, continental, Southern European, and
Eastern European) rather than specific policies (Esping-Andersen 1990;
Ferrera 1996). Compared to single mothers in Social Democratic
welfare regimes, single mothers were less likely to vote in all other
regimes. Interactions between the respective regime variables and
income did not, however, indicate that the type of regime itself
moderates the strength of the relationship between income and voting.
These findings suggest that the broad labels associated with a regime
approach may mask within-regime– type variation with regard to family
policies. All additional analyses are available upon request.
In this study, I explored the ways in which different public policies designed
to reconcile work and care, as well as improve labor market chances,
influence single mothers’ propensity to vote. Against the background of
the policy feedback approach, I have argued that public policies can
foster political participation. I hypothesized that in states where there is a
greater policy focus on family measures that would likely be highly
beneficial to single mothers, these mothers would be more likely to vote.
Such policies not only improve the financial situation of single mothers
(which corresponds to the resource effect for voter turnout) and their
5. The literature tends to indicate that both divorce and widowhood lower the likelihood of political
participation. Which cause is “worse,” however, remains to be definitively determined (Hobbs,
Christakis, and Fowler 2014; Kern 2010).
LONE MOTHERS’ POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT 21
ability to participate in the labor market (greater societal integration should
also foster political integration), but they can create personal stakes for the
mothers who rely on these benefits and services, thereby increasing the
salience of politics for these women. Moreover, as numerous authors
have pointed out (Kumlin 2004; Mettler 2002; Schneider and Ingram
1997; Soss 1999; Wichowsky and Moynihan 2008), policies can send
signals to people about where they stand in the community and about
whether their interests are valued and protected. These analyses have
revealed that not all family policies influence single mothers’ propensity
to vote, nor do they do so in uniform ways. For example, although leave
generosity seems to have no effect on voting, early childhood
expenditures do seem to matter, and for all groups of single mothers.
Cash expenditures on families were likewise found to exert a positive and
significant effect on single mothers’ likelihood of voting. Although voting
in more generous welfare states was higher, women in the upper-income
categories seemed to benefit more. This is likely a Matthew effect: “The
benefits of government spending on social policy disproportionately
accrue to middle- and upper-class relative to other social groups”
(Pavolini and van Lancker 2018, 879). Although the impact of single
motherhood on social and political integration seems to be lessened in
more generous policy contexts, policies are unable to completely erase
the participatory gap.
These analyses are exploratory in nature. Future studies should take a
more fine-grained look at the different types of policies and programs
available to parents and single mothers because aggregated spending
measures are unable to fully capture important qualitative differences in
national family policies. A further avenue to explore is policy change:
Are single mothers (or certain groups of single mothers) sensitive to
changes and cutbacks? Maternity leave policies, in particular, have
undergone numerous changes in several European countries over the
past decades (DICE Database 2015). Perhaps more time is needed to
witness a political impact of such policy changes (Pierson 2004). The
present study focused solely on voting, arguably the central means of
political influence for most citizens. Political behavior is, of course, not
limited to casting one’s vote; people can be involved in politics in
numerous other ways. Participation in demonstrations and protesting are
often thought to be motivated by grievances (Kern, Marien, and Hooghe
2015). Have cuts in social spending, for example, served to mobilize
vulnerable groups, such as low-income single mothers? Examining
alternative forms of political participation in conjunction with policy
22 JENNIFER SHORE
change would allow us to further study the consequences of austerity across
Getting at the “lived experience” remains a challenge for many studies
linking political behavior and public policies (Campbell 2012). Because
large-scale surveys generally do not include detailed information on
social program use and experiences (Shore and Tosun 2019), such
approaches need to be complemented with more fine-grained qualitative
work. Qualitative studies on single mothers’ political participation would
be better suited to capturing issues of race and ethnicity and the ways in
which multiple sources of disadvantage affect political behavior.
Finally, issues surrounding single mothers’ economic situations, their
labor market participation, and their political behavior are not solely the
concerns of women, or even simply poor women. These issues
ultimately have consequences for the inequality between and within
genders. Moreover, as children’s life chances in most societies remain
tied to their parents, the children of single mothers stand to inherit
disadvantage across multiple spheres. Considered in tandem with the
importance of childhood and adolescent socialization and political
participation and attitudes, the prospects for these children in terms of
their future political engagement do not appear particularly promising.
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