Solo mothers in Israel.

AuthorSwirski, Shlomo

The Solo Parent Family

A solo parent family is one in which one parent manages the household alone for him/herself and his/ her children, with no regular partner. This family pattern includes families of widow/ers and children, divorcees and children, single women who choose to have children and raise them alone, and families in which the parents are separated and the children live with one parent only.

Most solo parent families in Israel are headed by women (in 2001, 90.7 percent of solo parent families in which the youngest child was under 18. See Central Bureau of Statistics [hereinafter: CBS], Statistical Abstract of Israel, 2000: Table 12:5; for previous periods, see Gordon and Eliav, 1992; Katz and Bendor, 1986; Katz and Peres, 1996). Hence the title of this study, Solo Mothers in Israel.

The solo parent family has become a common pattern over the past generation. Its increasing prevalence reflects changes in women's status in the labor market and changes in family patterns.

Over the past three decades, the educational level and labor force participation of women have been rising. In European Union countries, for every ten men who joined the labor force in 1970, three women joined in Spain and six in Sweden, whereas by 1997 the number of participating women in those countries had climbed to six and nine, respectively (S. Swirski et al, 2001: Table 1). These changes have given women wider opportunities for autonomy and independence and have decreased the value of marriage as a source of economic security.

Concurrently, the patterns of spousal relations have been changing: a rising divorce rate (due, among other reasons, to the increasing legitimacy of divorce and greater flexibility in the rules pertaining to it); an increase in the rate of births out of wedlock along with a decrease in the birth rate within marriage; and a decline in the centrality of the institution of marriage, as reflected in fewer and fewer marriages and remarriages after divorce (Larsen, 1998).

These processes have facilitated the development of alternative patterns. One such alternative is a one-parent family. Among one-parent families, the most common configuration is a woman who is the solo parent.

Rising Proportion of Solo Parent Families in the West and in Israel

Solo parent families became common during the last three decades of the twentieth century, particularly in Western countries (Mulroy, 1995, Ch. 2; Duncan and Edwards, 1997; Larsen, 1998; Kiernan, Land, and Lewis, 1998). In the second half of the 1990s, they constituted 25 percent of families in the United States, 19 percent in Great Britain, 18 percent in Australia, 17 percent in Germany, 16 percent in Sweden, and 13 percent in France (Duncan and Edwards, 1997). In Israel, in 2001, 9.9 percent of all families were solo parent families headed by women.

In Israel, too, the proportion of solo parents increased significantly over the past three decades: from 4 percent in the 1970s to 8.6 percent in 1995 and 9.9 percent in 2001 (see Table 2). The upturn derives from the same processes as those occurring in the West, including uptrends in rates of divorce (1) and births out of wedlock. (2) In Israel, as in the West, women's educational levels and labor force participation rates have been rising. The proportion of women in the labor force, relative to that of men, climbed from 40 percent in 1970 to 70 percent in 1997 (S. Swirski et al, 2001: Table 1). In Israel, however, there was another important factor in the rising incidence of solo parent families: the arrival of many solo parent families from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Table 2 shows that the most significant increase in the proportion of solo parent families occurred in the 1990s, when nearly one million men and women immigrated to Israel. During that decade, the proportion of solo parent families doubled, from 5 to 10 percent. The largest number of solo parent families came from the the former Soviet Union (Sicron, in Sicron and Leshem, 1998; Poskanzer, 1995; Ben-David, 1996), but many came from Ethiopia. More than one quarter (28 percent) of households of Ethiopian Jews who arrived in the 1980s (in Operation Moses) were headed by solo parents, and most of them (84 percent) were headed by women (Kanizhenski, Estman, et al., in Weil, 1991: 22). Unlike immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who came from a society in which solo parenthood is commonplace, the high proportion of solo parent families from Ethiopia evidently traces to hardships encountered during the move to Israel (Weil, 1991: 44; Schwartzman, 1999: 26; Benita, Noam, and Levi, 1994: 7; King and Efrati, 2002:II).

Along with the proportional increase in solo parent families, there has been a change in the characteristics of such families: In the early 1970s, most solo mothers (58.5 percent) were widows (Rotter and Keren-Yaar, 1974: Table B), whereas in the early 2000s most heads of solo parent families (54.8 percent) were divorcees (CBS, Statistical Abstract of Israel 2002, 2000, Table 12:5). (3)

Israel is not unique in these respects. In every Western country, without exception, the proportion of widows among solo mothers has fallen and the proportion of divorcees, single women, and separated women has risen (Duncan and Edwards, 1997).

Table 2 shows the absolute and percent increases in Israel's population of solo parent families between 1975 and 2001.

Social Recognition and Economic Self-Sufficiency

There are two key issues in regard to solo parent families headed by women.

The first concerns social recognition, since solo parent families do not fall within the normative family pattern of one male and one female parent. The question of recognition is important in all configurations of solo parenthood, including families headed by widows (a pattern that has been familiar for years) and families headed by divorcees--a pattern that has become particularly prevalent in recent decade but is still far from normative. (See Katz, 1998; for an up-to-date analysis of the situation in Canada, see Bala and Bromwich, 2002.) However, the question of recognition is especially meaningful in regard to families headed by women who have chosen the solo parent pattern, be they single, separated, or divorcees who do not remarry.

The second question concerns solo mothers' ability to support themselves: There is every likelihood that a family that has only one parent, working or not, will have a lower income than a family that has two working parents. This is particularly true for solo parent families headed by women, because on average women's salaries are lower than men's.

This study focuses on the second issue--the economic self-sufficiency of solo mothers. Before we tackle the subject, however, we should briefly address the question of social recognition. In Israel, as in other countries around the world, the normative model remains the two-parent family, predominantly the patriarchal family--a two-parent family in which the man is considered the head of household and the chief breadwinner. This model is enshrined in social norms and laws that regulate family patterns including marriage, procreation, parenting, inheritance, taxation, social security, and the like.

It is noteworthy in this context that Israel's laws and courts do not recognize solo parent families as full-fledged families in all respects. For example, such families are not eligible to adopt children in Israel--this is still only possible for couples--although they may adopt them abroad. In fact, most Israelis who adopt children abroad today are single or divorced women. Similarly, families that wish to procreate by means of a surrogate mother must be composed of a man and a woman. In respect to artificial insemination, however, the law says nothing about solo mothers and therefore, by inference, does not restrict them in this sphere. (This is not the case in England; see Smart, 1966: 55.) (Most of the details in this paragraph are based on a conversation with Adv. Edith Titonowicz, chief legal advisor for Naamat, Tel Aviv, Nov. 7, 2002.)

This study, as stated, focuses on solo parents' ability to support the family unit. Here the key issues are employment and wages.

In respect to labor and wages, we use different definitions than those conventionally utilized in socioeconomic discussions. The conventional definition of "work" overlooks many activities performed by women during the day, i.e., care of home, children, and elderly members of the family. While work in the "labor market," i.e., outside the home, is performed for wages, caregiving in the home is not recognized as "work," is not remunerated, and is not calculated as part of economic activity (Elson, 2002; Folbre, 1995; Ironmonger, 1996; Gross and Swirski, 2003; B. Swirski, 2002). We will treat caregiving as "work." Accordingly, the distinction used in this study is not between "work in the labor market" and "caregiving" but between paid and unpaid work.

We begin with paid work. As is widely known, the labor market is divided not only by class, religion, or race, but also by gender. In the labor market, men hold the positions defined as the most important and are remunerated more generously than women even when women hold similar positions. Historically, negotiations over wages in industrial enterprises--which involved the establishment of trade unions, the formation of labor parties, and protracted confrontations between labor, on the one hand, and management and state institutions, on the other--have generally focused on men's wages. This is because men have been, and still are, viewed as the chief breadwinners. Since men's wages are considered the main, if not the only, wages, negotiations revolve around setting wages at a level that will "suffice" to support an entire family unit. The wages of women--wives of laborers on Industrial Revolution assembly lines and urban middle-class women who, for the most part, joined the...

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