Moving in with a new partner after separation makes single mothers far less likely to be poor, but that’s not always the case for single fathers, research suggests.
Despite this, the mothers are about twice as likely to initiate divorce, according to research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
AIFS researcher Lixia Qu used data from the Longitudinal Study of Separated Families to examine how likely single parents were to be living in poverty. Being “very poor” was defined as living on less than half the median household income, while being “poor” was less than 60 per cent of median household income.
Five years after separation, nearly seven out of 10 mothers who were still single were either poor or very poor, but only three out of 10 mothers who had moved in with a new partner were still poor.
“Repartnering is beneficial to fathers as well, but not as much as for mothers,” Dr Qu said. “But the timing matters. If you look at fathers who repartner after a number of years of separation, there's a slightly higher chance of moving into poverty because with repartnering they might need to support two families.”
Dr Qu said it was possible men who repartner quickly might be of higher socio-economic status. Overall the research about the effect of repartnering on single fathers is much less clear cut and more research was needed.
Dr Qu said the other big force lifting single mothers out of poverty was increased employment. But even for separated mothers in full-time work, 16 per cent were still very poor, compared with 11 per cent of fathers in full-time work.
Matt from Sydney’s inner west is the father of twin boys aged 22 from his first marriage and and two girls, 11 and eight, from his second marriage to Michelle.
He said repartnering was hugely beneficial and not just financially. “You get moral support, someone to help you out and pick up the children,” he said. “Things are cheaper in pairs and you’ve got two people helping to pay the bills. We’re lucky because both Michelle and I work full time in reasonable jobs.”
Matt said he split up from his first wife when their sons were five and won shared custody, but had to pay a large amount of child support because he was the higher earner.
He said it was “straining on the finances” when he was paying child support for his boys but also housing them for half the time in a house large enough for two families. It changed when his boys were teenagers and their mother remarried, with Matt and his ex agreeing to split the expenses instead.
Jenny Davidson, the chief executive of the Council of Single Mothers and their Children, said housing costs were the biggest expense for most families and this was easier when shared.
Often the family home was sold in a divorce settlement and single mothers found it harder to buy a new home than their ex-partners.
“If you can’t hold on to a mortgage after separation or divorce it’s very difficult to get back into the property market and the long-term outlook for single mothers if they have no savings and no home is they’ll be surviving on the pension and living in poverty in old age,” Ms Davidson said.
Women on government benefits might lose the Parenting Payment if they moved in with a new partner, but Ms Davidson said this was usually outweighed by the benefits of sharing expenses with a partner.