Oh, Those Europeans – Supporting Single Parents

August 14, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston 

Planet Money is airing segments on the Eurozone problems that arise when you try to have a unified economy but separate sovereign states. If a citizen of France is working in Germany, which country’s laws apply?

I hope this audio clip works, because you really need to hear the bemused bafflement of the American reporters trying to wrap their American minds around the concept of European assistance for single parents. Oh, those wacky Europeans. It’s the same kind of incredulous reaction Europeans might have in learning about, say, Florida’s gun laws.

(If the clip doesn’t work, go to Planet Money and start at that point. The relevant segment goes for about 1:22. I’ve also added an abbreviated transcript at the end of this post.)

The good old American view of welfare is that it should be provided sparingly if at all because it saps people’s industriousness. As we speak, Romney and Ryan are taking Obama to task for letting welfare recipients get off without working. (The Republicans are factually wrong about Obama, of course, but it’s the principle that’s important.) That kind of easy welfare is the way to moral and economic disaster for the individuals and the country at large. Charles Murray takes a similar view of single parenthood. If the government subsidizes single parenthood, single parenthood will increase,* and it has, bringing with it the economic and moral debasement of the White working class.

Surely, France and Germany, with their generous support of single parents, must be disaster zones. But no, they are among the strongest economies in Europe – Germany is surely the strongest. The unemployment rate in Germany is 5.4%, well below that of the US.

It is possible that support for single parents has taken the lock out wedlock, allowing mothers to escape bad marriages, and allowing pregnant women to avoid being forced into bad marriages.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

The proportion of children born out of wedlock has increased generally. But Germany, with its generous benefits, has seen a much lower increase than has the US. The rate in some other countries, the Netherlands or Norway, for example, has increased greatly.  (I cannot quickly find information on how support for single parents has changed in any of these countries.)  As for the impact of single-parent benefits on the economy, that requires much more complex analysis, controlling for a host of other variables. But at first glance at charts like this, the connection is hard to see.  Low-rate countries like Spain and Italy are not in such great shape economically.  And Japan, even before the current financial crisis, had experienced its economic “lost decade.” 

 * Conservatives take a similar view of unemployment benefits, which they label “paying people not to work.”

Edited transcript.  The Planet Money reporters are Zoe Chace and Robert Smith

ZOE CHACE:  There was also this totally European but really fascinating story they told us about the French single mother.  She’s living in France and working in Germany.
ROBERT SMITH: In France, when you have a kid, as a single parent, you get help from the state till the kid turns eighteen.  In Germany though, a single mom gets state assistance until the child is [slowly, for emphasis] twenty-five years old.  That’s not even a kid any more [laughing], he’s a full adult, but that’s the way Germany works.  You get assistance till your child is 25 years old.
The legal question was whether the woman should get benefits under the French system or the German.
I, I know it’s confusing, believe me – the court thought it was confusing too –but what it boiled down to is this:  Germany is paying a French woman German money because the French law wasn’t good enough.  It didn’t provide enough benefits.


Tamar said...

Well, journalist are not accurate all the time, if to put it mildly.

The social system in Germany is a bit more complex: parents (single and otherwise) receive children allowance (Kindergeld) for each child (EUR 184 for the first child, same for 2nd, and higher amount from the 3rd child up) until they're 18 and not as stated in the article.

If a child is:
- in occupational or academic training, or:
- highly disabled, or:
- cannot find employment

The parents would then receive benefits
- unemployed offspring older than 18: until they are 20
- disabled: for the rest of their reliance on their parents
- in training: until 24, until 25 only if the "child" has accomplished one year of voluntary military/social service (sort of state-organised "gap year" service). Since a French citizen living in France cannot join the German military voluntarily and is not also very likely to join the voluntary social service, it is in fact very unlikely that that French woman's child would be supported till [slowly, for emphasis] 25.

This is by the way valid also if you're a married billionaire, you don't have to be a single parent to receive that.

Single parents receive two things that two-parent households don't:
- For a child under 12 that doesn't receive child-support (from the other parent, etc.)
- All kinds of tax benefits; extra-support if one's on welfare

There are also all kinds of indirect benefits. A single parent, for example, would receive preference in getting placement in state-sponsored-daycare. But it is only logical, if s/he wants to work while their child is still a toddler, there must be some sort of support for it.

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for the information. The Planet Money journalists may have had it wrong, but their larger point was about the difficulties that arise when countries with different governments create economic entities. And my point was that European governments are far more helpful to single parents than is the US government.