Work Histories and Employment Outcomes of Single Mothers. What Helps Single Mothers Get a Job and Earn More?


The previous results show substantial average differences in employment and earnings between single mothers, especially low-income single mothers, and all women.  But, for those single mothers who gain employment and advance in the labor market, what helps the most?  In this section we highlight the key factors that are most strongly correlated with labor market success among single mothers.

We estimate two sets of multivariate probit equations to examine labor market dynamics for low-income single mothers and all single mothers over time.[9]  For the first set, we estimate the probability of working in at least one year during the outcome period among those not employed in the base year; second, we estimate the probability of earnings progression[10] between the base year and the outcome period.  Each set includes a series of equations or models that take various combinations of past employment and earnings history measures into account.  The main findings are summarized broadly below. A complete set of results is shown in the full report (which can be accessed at:

Employment.  For those not employed in the base year, basic demographic characteristics were important factors in the likelihood of getting a job in the outcome period.  Younger single mothers, including those with low incomes, were more likely to get a job and those who reported a health problem or disability were less likely.  Single mothers with higher levels of education tended to have a greater likelihood of securing employment, although this relationship was more consistent among single mothers as a whole, than among those with low incomes.  In some cases white single mothers were more likely to get a job than black single mothers, though these results depend on which other characteristics and experiences are taken into account.

Prior labor force patterns also matter in the transition to employment.  Greater past labor force attachment, especially for low-income single mothers, was associated with a greater likelihood of getting a job among those not working in the base year.  Even past employment experience in only one or two years significantly increased the likelihood of gaining employment, although past employment of three to four years and five or more years increased the likelihood of employment even more.  Contrary to our expectations, past employment volatility (a history of frequent job changes) did not negatively affect the likelihood of getting a job.  In fact, for all single mothers and low-income single mothers, we found that greater job volatility in the past improved the chances of gaining employment in later years.

Earnings.  What factors help single mothers move up in the earnings distribution?  For low-income and all single mothers with no or very low earnings in the base year, both basic demographic characteristics and employment histories were related to earnings progression.  The patterns, however, differ somewhat from the employment analysis results discussed above.

Again, among low-income and all single mothers, those at younger ages tended to do better, but age appears to be less important in earnings progression than in getting a job.  Further, unlike the previous results the race of single mothers was not significantly related to upward earnings mobility, taking other characteristics into account.  Education appears to be even more important in earnings progression than in securing employment for single mothers as a whole as well as those with low incomes; more highly educated single mothers had a much greater likelihood of getting better paying jobs in the outcome period compared to those with less educational attainment.  Similar to the employment analysis, single mothers who reported a health problem or disability were significantly less likely to advance in the earnings distribution but the relationship appears to be weaker relative to the employment results.

Again, prior employment histories are related to upward earnings mobility among low income and all single mothers.  More years of past employment experience was associated with moving up in the earnings distribution, especially past employment of five years or more.  Similar to the results for getting a job as discussed above, past employment volatility (or frequent job changes) also was related to an increased likelihood of getting a better paying job, especially for those who changed jobs two or more times.

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