Single women and their families: The case of Germany


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Content type
Family Matters article

May 1993


This is an edited version of a paper presented at the fourth Australian Family Research Conference in February 1993. It describes how, despite the increasing numbers of single-mother families in present-day society, existing policies lag behind. The author discusses discriminatory tax and social policies which still exist in Germany, and argues the case for introducing policies that recognise the diversity of family forms.

Single-mother families no longer constitute a marginal group in present-day society, neither demographically nor with respect to their social acceptance. But in the endeavours of single mothers to organise their private and public (work) lives, they are still subject to an unjust double discrimination - the discrimination against women in the labour market, and, in family policy, the favourable treatment of married parents compared with unmarried parents. Such discrimination, however, should be viewed against the process of change that society is still undergoing.


Formerly, being single carried a negative cultural value. For women such a lifestyle was usually not economically viable. The dominant legal as well as cultural norm was marriage, and being single was viewed as deviant behaviour. Thus single women systematically had fewer opportunities in society. In so far as marriage today is still looked upon as the norm in family policy, such exclusionary mechanisms are still working.

Against this background a process of individualisation is changing living conditions, especially for women. Here, 'individualisation' is not used to mean the making of distinct, self-conscious and self-determined persons; rather it means the process of freeing individuals from traditional social bonds. Women are affected by this process of individualisation in a twofold way.

First, in the labour market sphere, individualisation separates the worker-individual from ties of neighbourhood, friendship, kinship and family. The labour market requires flexible and mobile workers willing to dedicate all their energies to their work.

Second, a process of gender-related individualisation takes place in the sphere of personal relationships, with women no longer defining themselves through their family and their family status. Because women value personal relationships highly, they seem to be more ready than men to end such relationships if their needs and expectations about the quality of these relationships are not met. This process takes place in spite of the risk of poverty associated with the difficulties that single women experience in supporting their families through paid work.

So far, society has not developed any acceptable institutional arrangements to make work and family life compatible. Individuals, by way of personal experiment, are forced to find their own solutions, and women especially have to show a high degree of flexibility.

The process of being freed from traditional norms and dependencies is accompanied by a rescinding of direct legal discrimination of non-marital forms of living. But an analysis of social reality and of the complex legal system shows that it is too early to talk of an equal recognition of the full range of different family forms. The main obstacle to such recognition is, on the one hand, the 'standard employment relationship' which is modelled along the lines of the male continuous work biography, and, on the other hand, the standard division of labour according to gender stereotypes which is linked to the 'standard employment relationship'.

Obviously the institution in which the traditional division of labour was organised is marriage, and both marriage and the 'standard employment relationship' have traditionally been seen as a guarantee for social stability. The male employment contract was the focus point of a whole web of legal norms generated by social and labour market policy. This model of full-time, long-term labour contracts was seen as securing a family income to the male wage-earner which was backed up by a system of social insurance payments to assist families in times of need, the amount of such payments being determined by the previous income level. Therefore, the male wage earner as husband and father had the obligation to maintain dependent family members. Both ideals, the complementary constructions of the 'standard employment relationship' and traditional marriage, are increasingly at odds with present-day social reality.

Social changes and trends in today's society are being shaped mainly by women. They have fewer children, their marriage and remarriage rates continue to decline, and the divorce rate has been rising considerably, though in some societies it seems to have reached a certain (interim?) ceiling. Such trends are indicators of a process by which women are trying to become self-reliant in their economic and personal relations. Furthermore, feminist demands for political and practical implementation of equality with men create a pressure towards a change of policy. The rising social consciousness of single women tentatively constructs a new context of normality which, within the process of societal communication, can no longer be dismissed.

At some stage, single women decide to stay single for an indefinite period (which is not to say that such a decision is not reversible) and at this stage being single becomes a permanent way of living. Whether and how single women are able to create their own form of living depends upon how they are able to shape their own personal development, the development of personal relationships, of the interconnections with friends and relatives, and whether they are able to build up a secure basis for their existence through employment.

Family and employment are not equally important for men and women during the course of their lives, and this has consequences for single women. We know that financial security is linked to continuous employment. Women who drop out of the workforce during marriage are seldom able to attain financial security through employment after divorce, and if they do, it is under high physical and psychological stress. Generally they have to cope with the consequences of the compromises between family duties and workforce participation which they made during prior phases of their life. Economically, these consequences are often irreversible unless society stops considering the costs involved in raising children as a private risk.

Contrary to still widely held expectations for many women, marriage does not only not guarantee economic security, but, rather, forms an obstacle towards that security. Similar disadvantages are incurred if women follow the traditional role ascribed to them in other ways. Many single women forgo a career in the workforce in favour of caring for family members. They render services that otherwise would have to be provided by the welfare system, and in the end become clients of this system themselves.

Traditionally, social and family policy focus on the 'standard employment relationship' and on marriage, carrying with it the assumption that substantial family functions are performed only by the marital family, and thereby disregarding the family performance of single parents and the family care given by single women generally. On the other hand, many a married couple that does not form a family (no dependent children) still benefits from standard family and social policies.

Policies that focus on marriage and on the 'standard employment relationship' (thereby necessarily strengthening the traditional gender-based division of labour) destabilise the state of being single as a form of living. Furthermore, they impede social integration. Traditional concepts can no longer rely on tacit conformity of social action. Social reality (or the stated process of diversification) leads away from these concepts.


In the area of Family Law we find a development towards non- discriminating regulations that aim at equal distribution of property and at fair compensation in situations of need. By international standards, child maintenance is implemented to a high degree (Willenbacher and Voegeli 1988; Lebens- und Arbeitssituationen ... 1988). Marital property, especially the new property in form of superannuation assets, is equally distributed (German Civil Code). But there is a large discrepancy between theory and reality with respect to spouse maintenance. The assumption is that marriage guarantees economic security after divorce and that the marital standard of living will be secured post- divorce by means of a maintenance claim. In reality, this is an illusion.

This illusion is intensified by the regulations of Germany's Social Insurance Law. Marriage fulfils its promises only for one category of single women - widows. They receive an ample widow's pension if they have to care for a minor child or are over the age of 45 years, and, economically, they are fairly well off. This is demonstrated by the fact that widows with school- aged children have an employment rate of 48 per cent compared with 80 per cent for never married and divorced mothers (Neubauer 1989). But it is the death of the breadwinner that is the crucial point, not the fact that there are children to be cared for. There is no provision for a social insurance pension on the sole ground that a single parent has to care for her or his children.

The illusion of marriage as an agent of economic security becomes particularly apparent when women divorce. Although Germany's scheme of splitting social insurance assets acquired during marriage has a very high rate of implementation, nevertheless the divorced spouse only obtains 50 per cent of the joint assets whereas a widow is awarded 60 per cent of the husband's pension plus, in lower income groups, retaining her own.

But there is another mechanism that works against never married or divorced mothers. Not only is their family work not honoured by a widow's pension, but they might have taken time out of the workforce, thus not acquiring pension assets during that time, or have acquired such assets to a lesser degree via the pension-splitting scheme at divorce. Furthermore, they have had other opportunity costs through the raising of their children. Because of having to juggle their work and family lives, single mothers have fewer chances to be successful in a job or career: they can not work overtime, stay late or go away for business meetings or additional training. Again, therefore, they acquire less insurance assets, and their pensions will be relatively low.

While these women are raising the future working generation of contribution payers, those who will benefit most from the social insurance system are married couples with no children who, generally, are able to acquire the highest assets and thus will obtain the highest pension.

Until 1974, within the body of tax law and the law governing children's benefits, only divorced and never married mothers were discriminated against. While widowed mothers received the same tax bonus offered to a married couple through the income- splitting system, never married and divorced women were only given an additional tax free area as single parents. In the late 1950s this tax free area provided almost the same benefits as the income-splitting system. Over time, however, savings from the tax free area have declined in value compared with benefits from the income-splitting system. From 1974, widows were treated the same as other single mothers.

At present, the transfer payment system, whether in the form of deductions from taxable income or direct payments, awards the highest benefits to the status of being married, regardless of whether the couple has children; child-related transfers, on the other hand, are relatively small. (The maximum benefit someone earning more than DM 240,000 per year derives from marriage only, amounts to almost DM 23,000 whereas the approximate transfer to a single mother of one child earning DM 30,000 per year amounts to about DM 2,700.) However, most single-mother families and other low income groups will benefit from several recent judgements by the Federal Constitutional Court that declared the minimum living wage generally not taxable (Bundesverfassungsgericht 1990, 1992).

It will be interesting to see whether or not the present government will use its chance to set up a rational tax system that focuses on the costs of raising children and not on the formal status of marriage.

With respect to the direct payment of children's benefits, discrimination against single mothers has decreased but not disappeared. As the majority of single mothers have only one child, up until 1974 single mothers received hardly any child- related transfer payments. Child tax deductions were of little benefit to single mothers as generally they have very low incomes. Single mothers received substantial aid only when direct child payments for the first child were introduced in 1974. However, because policies assume that costs rise over- proportionately with the number of children, the amount paid for the first child is less than half of that for the second and only about one-third of that for the third and following children. While this assumption might be true for the traditional household with the breadwinner/homemaker division of labour, it definitely is not the case for single mothers.

All in all, the present system highly rewards 'non-families' (here, meaning married couples without children) in the name of family policy while giving a mere pittance to those who toil and raise the generation of future tax and social insurance contribution payers. Furthermore, it encourages women to opt for the traditional homemaker role. Although fewer and fewer women are adopting this role, social policy is setting the wrong incentives, being conducive to upholding the traditional division of labour during marriage which produces negative effects, especially on divorce, for the women affected and for society.

Transfer payments during parental leave (termed 'child raising benefits'), which amount to DM 600 per month and are paid for 24 months but are means-tested from the seventh month onward, benefit the lower income groups (and therefore single mothers) over-proportionately. But still, one aspect of discrimination remains. Although almost all mothers make use of these payments, it is on the condition that during the period of parental leave they must work less than half-time or not at all. Single mothers can only fulfil this provision if they become dependent on welfare. Unlike married mothers, it is not economically feasible for them to work part-time. They have to choose between two undesirable options: staying independent by continuous full- time employment thereby forgoing child raising benefits and having to rely on scarce child care facilities of dubious quality; or becoming dependent on a welfare system (the negative aspects of which are discussed below), but being able to care for their child personally in the early years of its life.

If they have a child under the age of three years, single mothers have an unconditional claim to welfare payments; they are not required to be employed. Monthly benefits amount to about DM 1,100 if there is one child, DM 1,500 if there are two (calculations of the Federal Family Ministry, cited by Neubauer 1989). All income, except for parental leave payments, is counted 100 per cent against the welfare claim. However, single mothers are allowed to earn a small amount from employment before their benefit begins to be reduced. In addition, individuals can apply to the agency responsible for welfare payments for larger pieces of clothing, furniture and the like.

The welfare payment system is thus in the tradition of poverty policy which is associated with a high degree of state control. With individual payments for clothing and furniture there is a lot of discretion, and clients are forced into a supplicatory role. Furthermore, because parents have an obligation to maintain their grown-up children, many individuals who are eligible for welfare are dissuaded from applying for benefits since they fear the agency will attempt to recoup the benefit from their parents. Because single mothers form a large group of welfare clients, these regulations affect them to a high degree, thus making them an object of social control.

This cursory overview of the legal regulation of transfer payments has shown that in Germany society does not assist single-parent families to the same degree as married couples, although, generally, single mothers are more in need of help.


With increasing diversification of family forms it would be unwise to create ever new and changing policies to assist ever newly defined target groups. Instead what is needed is a universalist policy on the basis of an equal recognition of diverse family forms.

The starting point for such a policy should be the costs of raising children. Such costs are individual investments in the future welfare of society. They benefit society regardless of the form of the family within which such costs are incurred. The aim should be an equality of opportunities for parents and children regardless of the family form. Such a policy would have to be measured against the constitutionally guaranteed values of personal freedom, self-determination and equal opportunities.

There is no way back in the stated process of individualisation. Family policy will have to focus on the individual, its needs and its performance for society. Such policy may no longer hinge upon the traditional marriage- based family as a unit. It has to respect the construction of family ties through individual decisions creating a great diversity of family forms. Thus, paradoxically, the focus point of family policy should be the individual, not the family, in order to do justice to all family forms. Scandinavian countries are especially advanced in the restructuring of their family policy along these lines. The introduction of the 'Individual Principle' into Danish Law (Lund-Andersen 1990) is only the latest example of this process. There are tendencies in this direction to be found in the laws of most Western countries.

Not only does the system of state transfer payments to families have to be reformed, the social infrastructure also has to be examined. Studies from the US and the UK (McLanahan and Booth 1988; McLanahan 1992; Maclean and Wadsworth 1988) indicate that one of the consequences of divorce may be that children in single-mother families perform poorly in the educational system and in the labour market. German data (Voegeli and Willenbacher 1993) suggest that the existence or lack of social infrastructure, the employment circumstances of mothers, and the number of children in the family, all have a bearing on how these children perform.

  • If it is true that the children of employed single mothers are more successful than the children of unemployed single mothers, then social policy should aim for single mothers' integration into the labour market rather than increase their transfer payments.
  • If it is true that children of employed single mothers who are in families where there are two or more children are not as successful as those in one-child families, then social policy should aim to improve the social infrastructure to make the raising of children and employment compatible.
  • If it is true that employment during marriage is the best guarantee for single mothers to be able to maintain their standard of living after divorce, then the current policies which discourage married mothers from working should be changed.

Central elements of a new universalist family policy are:

  • a system of transfer payments that recognises the costs of raising children and disregards the form of the family;
  • a system of old-age pensions that counts the raising of children as a material contribution, thereby enabling women to accumulate sufficient assets to be eligible for a pension in their own right rather than being reliant on surviving dependents' pensions (which would have to be abolished);
  • a system of parental leave and attached benefits which single mothers could use without having to turn to the welfare agencies; this would involve benefits consisting of a higher percentage of the previous net income;
  • a labour market policy that aims at the integration of mothers into the labour market, that makes mothers who have raised children eligible for the training and retaining schemes currently available for unemployed people who have paid insurance contributions, and that gives all parents a right to lower their working hours (thus enabling either parent to work part-time if they wish);
  • the establishment of low cost child care facilities that are accessible and compatible with the parents' working hours;
  • an education system that gives access to secondary and tertiary education regardless of the parents' income.
  • Such a family policy would contribute to the more equal division of employment and household work between male and female parents, and thus to a more egalitarian society. The unemployment rate would decrease and society would gain in terms of human capital because women would be better qualified and their qualifications would not be devalued as a consequence of time out of the workforce. Billions of Marks spent on subsidising marriage and on welfare could be saved. But, most important, such a policy would contribute to social integration currently at risk because of the processes of individualisation.


The German social security system is split in two. On the one hand, there are contributory insurance schemes covering the standard risks of a working life: illness, unemployment, invalidity and old age. Membership is compulsory, with few exceptions, and contributions are set by statute as a percentage of personal gross income, currently amounting to approximately 35 per cent for all sectors together. Benefits, to a high degree, are determined by the previous income level. Thus, within the old age pension scheme, assets are accumulated in relation to the duration of membership and to the proportion of personal earned income to average income of the workforce. On the other hand, there is a tax funded welfare scheme which operates on the criterion of need. Every person has a statutory right to claims under this scheme if he or she is in need.


Under the income-splitting system, the married couple's incomes are added then divided equally and each half taxed according to the general income tax scale. This means that where one partner's income is higher than the other's, this person is taxed at a lower marginal tax rate than if income- splitting had not occurred. To make things easier to administer, the law then provided a separate tax scale for a married couple's joint incomes. Widows were taxed according to this scale until 1974.


  • Bundesverfassungsgericht (1990), Order of 29 May 1990 - 1 BvL 20/84, 26/84, 41/86 in 'Familie und Recht 1990', p.218f.
  • Bundesverfassungsgericht (1992), Order of 25 September 1992 - 2 BvL 5/91, 8/91, 14/91 in 'Familie und Recht 1992', p.356f.
  • Lebens- und Arbeitssituationen alleinerziehender Frauen in Niedersachsen (1988), Hannover.
  • Lund-Andersen (1990), 'Moving towards an individual principle in Danish law', International Journal of Law and the Family, Vol.4, p.328f.
  • McLanahan (1992), 'Intergenerational Consequences of Divorce: the United States Perspective', in Weitzman and Maclean (eds) Economic Consequences of Divorce, Oxford, p.285f.
  • McLanahan and Booth (1988), Mother-Only Families: Problems, Reproduction, Politics, Discussion Paper No. 855- 7, Institute of Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin, Madison.
  • Maclean and Wadsworth (1988), 'The interests of children after parental divorce', International Journal of Law and the Family, Vol.2, p.155f.
  • Neubauer (1989), Allenerziehende Muetter and Vaeter, Schriftenreihe des Bundesministers fur Jugend, Familie, Frauen und Gesundheit, Vol.219, Stuttgart.
  • Voegeli and Willenbacher (1993), 'Children's rights and social placement', International Journal of Law and the Family Vol.7, p.1088.
  • Willenbacher and Voegeli (1988), 'Multiple disadvantages of single- parent families in the Federal Republic of Germany', in: Meulders-Klein, Eekelaar (eds), Family, State and Individual Economic Security, Brussels, p.661f.