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Why are there so many single mothers?

Sep 26 2018 14:42
Johan Fourie

Johan Fourie is associate professor in economics at Stellenbosch University.

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Here is a statistic to get your head around: Of the 989 318 babies born last year in South Africa, 61.7% have no information about their father included on their birth certificate. 

We don’t precisely know why the women who register these babies don’t record the father’s information. 

It’s highly likely that it is because the father would not want to be involved in raising the child. 

This conjecture seems to be supported by other evidence: the Human Sciences Research Council estimates that 60% of SA children have an absent father, and 40% of mothers are single parents.

Explaining why these mothers are single isn’t easy. One argument is historical. 

Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, young men would move to the mines, away from structured family life in the countryside. 

This migrant labour system, it is said, would explain the large number of single women. 

While plausible theoretically, this explanation neglects a key empirical reality: the share of single mothers is on the increase. 

The migrant labour system, owing to the apartheid-era homeland system, was arguably most intense during the 20th century. 

Yet the share of single mothers was much lower during this period. The number of migrant workers fell after the dismantling of apartheid’s settlement policies and, since the 1990s, the decline of the mining industry. 

It is exactly then that we see a significant rise in single motherhood.

What else could explain the rise? Dorrit Posel and Stephanie Rudwick, in a paper published in 2014 by the African Studies Association, show that the Zulu, in particular, have very low marriage rates, as low as 30%. 

Perhaps, you might argue, women prefer to be single. Well, evidence does not support this theory. 

Using survey data, Posel and Rudwick find that more than 80% of unmarried Zulu women report that they would like to get married (as do men, incidentally). 

The reason they attribute to women remaining unmarried despite their wish to be married is lobola, or bride wealth:

“Our qualitative data demonstrates that frequently the way ilobolo is practised, and particularly the amount that is requested relative to men’s opportunities in the South African labour market, can contribute to delayed marriage and nonmarriage.”

Both the migrant labour and lobola systems are unique to southern Africa. 


But the share of single mothers has been rising almost everywhere. In fact, 62% of all births to non-college educated mothers in the US in 2014 were to unmarried women, very similar to the SA figure. 

Something more universal seems to be behind these trends.

One possibility is that men’s poor economic conditions contribute to them delaying or eschewing marriage. 

This is the argument Posel and Rudwick put forward. 

It is also found for the US, where non-college educated men’s relative incomes have declined over the last three years. 

A new paper, soon to be published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, tests this. 

The authors, Melissa Kearney and Riley Wilson, link the fracking of shale gas in the 2000s to marriage rates. 

If the hypothesis is true that men do not marry because of poor economic conditions, then a fracking boom, which would create more employment and higher incomes, should result in larger numbers of men being willing and able to marry. 

Their sophisticated statistical analysis shows that

1) there is no impact on higher incomes of non-college educated men on the likelihood of getting married,

2) there is a boost to fertility rates after their income improves, but this increase is similar for both married and unmarried men. 

In short: it’s not poverty that prevents marriage. 

So what then? It could be higher female incomes.

Not only have women entered the labour market at historic levels since the 1960s, but social transfers to support children has also increased. 

Both sources of income would give women more agency (or bargaining power) within the household, and reduce the need to live with an income earning partner. 

While much evidence shows that giving women more household resources improves the outcomes for children, it may have the unintended consequences of absolving men from their child-rearing responsibilities. 

Thomas Sowell, a US libertarian economist, notes that in 1960, almost 100 years after the end of slavery in the US, 22% of African Americans grew up in households with only one parent. 

“Thirty years later, after the liberal welfare state, that number had more than tripled.

We can speculate as to how much of that 22% was due to slavery, but we know that that tripling was not due to the legacy of slavery. It was due to the legacy of a whole different set of policies.”

But it is not that easy. The rise in single mothers, although it has increased in the last two decades, began before the child support grant was introduced in SA.

Pensions may play a role, but it is unclear to what extent they alone can explain the rise in single motherhood.

Family structure is rapidly changing. 

More children are now growing up with only one parent. The causes remain fuzzy, but the consequences are likely to be even more uncertain. 

Johan Fourie is associate professor in economics at Stellenbosch University.

This article originally appeared in the 26 September edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

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