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Double Jeopardy for Single-Parent Families: When Housing Conditions and Lockdown Collide

Single-parent families are among those households most affected by economic precarity and the current health crisis. In this paper, Laure Crepin and Fanny Bugeja-Bloch show that, in France, housing conditions for these families have been in decline since the early 2000s—long before the Covid lockdowns.

School closures and the shutdown of most shops and businesses, exhortations to work from home, short-time working (which has affected one in three private-sector employees in France), [1] limits on movement outside the home, travel restrictions… All these measures taken to combat the Covid‑19 pandemic have resulted in a withdrawal into the domestic sphere, which has been experienced with varying degrees of positivity (or negativity), depending on the household. When all social activities, including work and children’s schooling, are forced to take place at home, the characteristics of one’s dwelling (size, presence of an outdoor space, location, noise, humidity, lack of heating) largely determine one’s experience of lockdown. In these circumstances, living in housing that is in poor condition or unsuited to the size and make-up of one’s family appears all the more unbearable, and highlights the housing inequalities that affect French society (Gilbert 2020).

While the issue of inequalities in housing conditions according to social class and living standards has been studied in the past, showing that these inequalities have been increasing for several decades, despite an overall improvement on average in housing conditions, particularly with respect to the increase in the size of housing units and the decrease in overcrowding (Jacquot 2006; Fack 2009; Bugeja-Bloch 2013; Laférrère et al. 2017; Observatoire des inégalités 2020), the question of housing inequalities according to family structure has been less thoroughly explored, despite significant differences in living conditions between couples and single-parent families. Although single-parent families have historically been the target of welfare-state intervention (Bonaïti 2011), these households are still characterized by particularly precarious living conditions. A third live below the poverty line (Vanderschelden 2014). In addition, many of these families, particularly in the Paris region, live in over-occupied housing located in buildings in urban centers (Drieux et al. 2016; Villaume 2016). Yet this residential situation can make the experience of lockdown more difficult, especially for single-parent households where domestic work cannot be shared between spouses. Starting with the health crisis, which amplifies inequalities in housing conditions between one- and two-parent families, this article explores these inequalities and highlights their worsening since the beginning of the 21st century. From this point of view, the three waves of the French national housing survey (2002, 2006 and 2013) provide very precise information for comparing the housing conditions of single-parent families and couples with children in mainland France and Corsica, and their evolution throughout the 2000s.

After presenting a social profile of single-parent families, we highlight how lockdown has exacerbated their difficult housing conditions, and point to a deterioration in conditions that, in reality, dates back to the 2000s.

Single-parent families: at the heart of the female, precarious, urban working classes

Among households with children, [2] single-parent families are steadily increasing (from 17% of families with children in 2002 to 22% in 2013). This increase is primarily due to more frequent divorces and separations, with 79% of single-parent families resulting from a separation, 6% from the death of one parent, and 15% from no initial union (Buisson et al. 2015).

These single-parent families have a particular profile, which must be highlighted in order to understand their positions in the housing market. In 2013, in 81% of cases, the head of these households was a woman. Compared to couples with children, they are slightly older (43.7 years of age vs. 42.8) and have fewer children on average (1.6 vs. 1.8). They have fewer educational qualifications and experience greater and more frequent economic hardship, with nearly a third living below the poverty line (Vanderschelden 2014). Among them, unskilled female clerical employees are overrepresented, [3] particularly public-sector employees (5% of single parents), personal service employees (11%), corporate administrative employees (7%) and retail employees (4.5%). Because of their subaltern position in the socioprofessional hierarchy, many continued to go to their workplace during lockdown despite the pandemic context. In addition to the fact that they were thus overexposed to the virus, there was also the problem of childcare for these populations (except for the children of healthcare workers, who were accommodated in certain schools, which remained closed to other children).

In terms of housing, the divide between couples with families and single-parent families is clear. Couples with children tend to live in single-family homes (71%), with their own garden, and tend to own their own home; single-parent families tend to live in apartment buildings (57%), most of which are rented (in either the social-housing sector or the private sector).

Working-class and single-parent: double whammy housing conditions

Since single-parent families are more likely to be working class than couples with children, it is interesting to disentangle the class effect from the single-parent effect in their housing conditions. To do this, the housing survey makes it possible to compare the housing conditions of these two types of family structures, social category by social category (working-class, middle-class and upper-class). [4]

Figure 1. Couples’ and single-parent families’ housing conditions by social class

Legend: No private outdoor space | Overcrowded dwelling | Fairly or very frequent daytime noise | Problems with damp in dwelling | Heating problems during previous winter

Working-class couple with children | Middle-class couple with children
Upper-class couple with children | Working-class single-parent family
Middle-class single-parent family | Upper-class single-parent family

Interpretation: 14% of working-class couples with children live in a dwelling without any private outdoor space.

Several interesting facts emerge from these graphs, which can be related to the current situation. In this period of constrained withdrawal into the domestic sphere, having a sufficiently spacious interior space and access to a private outdoor space largely conditions household organization and lifestyles. In a lockdown situation, living space structures the possibilities of work for the parent(s), the children’s homework and the rest or leisure time of each other. However, for the same social class, the living spaces of single-parent families are more often overcrowded (in working-class families, this is the case for 22% of single-parent families compared to 11% of couples with children) and without an outside space (30% and 14% respectively), and this is true at all levels of the social hierarchy (the proportion of overcrowded dwellings rises, in the upper classes, to 13% for single-parent families, compared to 4% for those in couples). In addition, there are problems with humidity (34% of single-parent families from working-class backgrounds have problems with humidity, compared with 27% of two-parent families from the same background), heating (40% and 26% respectively) and odors, which are more frequent in the homes of these families. In addition to the space in the dwelling, the quality of confined life is also assessed in terms of the environment. Here again, single-adult families suffer more from neighborhood noise (32% of working-class families and 29% of upper-class families report this nuisance, compared with 24% and 18% for two-parent families).

The effects of family structure are thus compounded by the effects of social class, with the result that single-parent families from the upper classes are proportionally more likely to live in housing whose characteristics make the experience of lockdown more difficult than those of two-parent families from the lower classes.

Ultimately, the situation of single-parenthood among the working classes constitutes a dual handicap, accentuated by the pandemic context: in addition to the low (and unstable) incomes associated with their professional position, which are all the more limited by single-parenthood, which considerably reduces the economies of scale allowed by the couple, there are situations of overcrowding and degraded housing conditions.

Long before coronavirus

While single-parent families are acutely affected by lockdown, the deterioration of their housing conditions is actually the result of a longer-term process, linked to the context of increasing housing inequalities between different social categories since the 2000s. Our housing conditions are on the whole much better today than they were twenty-five years ago (Laferrère et al. 2017). However, this average improvement conceals growing inequalities between populations. While inequalities in housing conditions and costs between the richest and the poorest have been documented (Fack 2009; Bugeja-Bloch 2013 in particular), it is useful to understand these inequalities according to household structure.

Figure 2. Changes in housing conditions of working-class couples and single-parent families between 2002 and 2013

Legend: No private outdoor space | Overcrowding | Damp dwelling | Cold dwelling | Household expenditure-to-income ratio

Interpretation: 33% of working-class single-parent families lived in housing without outdoor space in 2002; this was the case for 30% in 2013. We were unable to harmonize the variables on noise in housing between 2002 and 2013, so they do not feature in this graph.

In 10 years, the housing conditions of working-class couples with children have improved overall: they live less than in the past in housing without an exterior (this proportion rose from 18% to 14% from 2002 to 2006) and encounter less frequent problems of dampness (30% to 27% over the period), even if those related to cold have increased (14% to 24%). But this positive temporal dynamic does not affect single-parent families, whose situations are increasingly different from those of working-class couples with children. In addition to overcrowding (which is increasing slightly, affecting 22% of working-class single-parent families), the differences in available space also reflect inequalities between these two types of family, with the number of bedrooms per child having increased less rapidly among single-parent families than among working-class couples with children. [5] In times of lockdown, the inability to isolate oneself - especially when two children share a room or the adult sleeps on the living room couch - constrains and degrades daily life terribly.

Finally, on the question of housing costs, it appears that the surge in real-estate prices and rents (Friggit 2009) is having an impact primarily on working-class households, which, regardless of their family structure, are experiencing a continuous increase in their expenditure-to-income ratio (more pronounced than that of more privileged households, whose housing conditions are nonetheless better) (Fack 2009; Bugeja-Bloch 2013).

Finally, between 2002 and 2013, within the working classes, inequalities in housing conditions between one- and two-parent families increased, even though the former spend not only a growing share of their budget on housing, but also a larger share.

This pandemic period makes visible the housing inequalities that run through French society and contributes to further degrading the living conditions of certain categories. If the situation is burdensome and often intolerable for the working classes (Bugeja-Bloch and Lambert 2020), it is even more so for single-parent families within these groups. More than others, they will have endured two months (at least) of lockdown in overcrowded and unhealthy housing (less well insulated, noisier, more unhealthy), without access to outdoor space. Mothers who head single-parent families - for they are mothers in 80% of cases - find themselves taking on all the roles: in addition to their professional activities, they manage the domestic work alone, take care of the children, care for them, leisure activities and schooling. [6] Finally, confined single-parent families experience a double punishment: many of them hold jobs as employees (cashiers, personal assistants, care assistants), which involve their presence in the workplace and thus jeopardize their health, they must continue to accompany their children in all their activities, and this in more precarious housing conditions.

These findings raise two questions. In addition to the consequences—social, economic, and psychological—of the additional difficulties associated with the lockdown that single-parent families have experienced and continue to experience, we must look to the future and draw some lessons. Since the deterioration of the housing conditions of single-parent families precedes the lockdown, the objective of public policies cannot consist of a simple “return to normal” for households whose situation prior to lockdown was already marked by precariousness.

Bibliography

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To cite this article:

Laure Crepin & Fanny Bugeja-Bloch & translated by Oliver @Waine, “Double Jeopardy for Single-Parent Families: When Housing Conditions and Lockdown Collide”, Metropolitics, 5 November 2021. URL : https://metropolitics.org/Double-Jeopardy-for-Single-Parent-Families-When-Housing-Conditions-and-Lockdown.html

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