Single mothers may face significant economic handicaps, an issue of particular concern in Latin America and the Caribbean where 11% of households are headed by a single parent—the highest rate of any region in the world—and most of those households are led by single mothers. This already large share almost triples when taking into account mothers without a partner who live with extended family members.
Single parent households have a sole income earner who must also labor at household chores and childrearing. Those dual responsibilities can mean less opportunity to finish high school or college and earn the qualifications that lead to higher wages. They can mean fewer opportunities for full-time work in the formal sector, savings, and investment in a child’s future, whether that be in more parental attention, better education, or some other developmental asset.
Handicaps in Employment and Childcare
All those handicaps are significantly amplified in the case of single mothers, who—like women generally in Latin America and the Caribbean—suffer from significant employment discrimination and a gender wage gap. They are also made worse by the lack of full-time, publicly funded, quality daycare that might allow single mothers to get ahead in the labor market.
I recently took a detailed look at the situation of single mothers in Mexico, where the share of them has grown by 60% over the last two decades, so that there are now four million single mothers in the country. Largely out of necessity, 80% of single mothers are currently employed, nearly double the rate for other mothers and 15% more than women without children. Many of the single mothers in lower economic brackets come from backgrounds of less education and opportunity. They often work in the informal sector, typically engaged in jobs as part-time domestic workers, beauticians, shop clerks and other low-earning occupations.
It is part of the double-edged sword of single motherhood in Latin America and the Caribbean. The freedom to be single is in some ways a sign of progress, as virtually all countries in the region now grant equal divorce rights to men and women, and divorce and single parenthood have lost much of their stigma. At the same time, poorer women may be particularly vulnerable to single parenthood. Indeed, while the share of single mothers among women increased by at least 40% from 2005 to 2023 in Mexico’s top three income quartiles, it increased 80% in the bottom quartile of the income scale, condemning many poorer women to unsatisfying job prospects and a precarious economic future.
The Role of Grandmothers
The extended family typical of Mexico and Latin America and the outsized role of grandmothers in assuming some of childrearing’s burdens offers some mitigation of these unfavorable circumstances. As I discuss in a recent study and blog, Latin America has one of the highest percentages of three-generation households. With people living longer and fertility rates falling the share of them is also increasing, rising in the case of Mexico by nearly 20% during the last 15 years. Grandmothers in such homes are invaluable sources of support, allowing women to enter the labor market at significantly higher rates than in households without them. Yet the situation for mothers can be precarious. When a grandmother dies in Mexico, the chance that her daughter will be in the labor force falls by 27%, and her earnings fall an average of 53%. The need for childcare, which the grandmother temporarily supplies, is great and for single mothers even greater.
Policy Reforms for Single Mothers
Women in Mexico, as in Latin America and the Caribbean generally, are marrying later and cohabitating to a much greater extent than before. Fertility rates have also fallen, easing the burden of maintaining a large family. But the situation for single mothers is fragile. They are more likely to be deprived of opportunities for education and full time, formal labor and more likely to suffer financial hardship and poverty as a result. Better sex education and greater enforcement of child marriage and domestic violence laws could help, as could greater efforts to reduce gender discrimination and the wage gap for women in employment and improve the availability of low-cost and publicly funded quality childcare. Mothers may be single because of unwanted circumstances or out of choice. They should not suffer educational, financial and childrearing handicaps as a result.