Single Motherhood in East and West Germany: What Can Explain the Differences?

AuthorJirjahn, Uwe
  1. Introduction

    Two decades after reunification there are still large differences between East and West Germany. This does not only hold for the economic circumstances but also for the various dimensions of social life including single parenthood. Official statistics show that the share of parents living without a spouse or cohabiting partner in the household is substantially higher in East than in West Germany (Statistisches Bundesamt 2010). In the year 2009, 27 percent of East German families were single parent families. The share of single parent families in West Germany amounted to 17 percent.

    This raises the question of what causes the differences between East and West Germany. As most single parents are single mothers, our study addresses the question by examining two transmission channels leading to single motherhood. Using data from the SOEP, we examine both out-of-partnership births and separations of couples with minor children. (1) Our results show that East and West Germany differ in both respects. Single women in East Germany are more likely to give birth to a child than single women in West Germany. Furthermore, East German couples have a higher probability to separate than West German couples.

    We consider three possible explanations for the differences in single motherhood. First, East Germany is still characterized by poor economic outcomes implying that there is a lower share of men with a high earnings capacity. The lower earnings capacity of men may lead East German women to search more often for a new partner or to raise their children even without the help of a partner.

    Second, availability of child care is much higher in East than in West Germany. Availability of child care allows mothers to combine work and family even if there is no partner in the household. Hence, mothers' financial dependency on a partner may be lower in East Germany.

    Third, cultural differences may play a role. People in East and West Germany lived under completely different political regimes for 45 years. This may have resulted in the emergence of different norms of love, partnership and family. The two parts of Germany differed substantially in their family policies. In West Germany, family policy was dominated for a long time by the traditional male breadwinner model with continuously employed men and only partially employed women. By contrast, the East German family policy promoted more equal gender roles and integrated women into full-time employment. To the extent people in West and East Germany have internalized the respective gender role model, one should still find behavioral differences even after reunification. More equal gender roles imply that women are not only economically, but also emotionally less dependent on a male partner. Thus, East German women may be more able and willing to raise children without a partner.

    We run regressions with and without control variables for the economic situation and for the availability of child care. Including these variables does not change the pattern of results on out-of-partnership births. East and West German women differ in the probability of out-of-partnership birth even when taking the economic situation and the availability of child care into account. This suggests that the differences in out-ofpartnership births may be rather due to cultural factors.

    As to the higher rate of separations in East Germany, our estimates show that the economic situation but not the availability of child care plays a role. However, the higher rate of separations can also be explained by a higher share of cohabiting couples. Cohabiting couples have a higher likelihood of separation than married couples. Our results show significant differences in cohabitation between East and West Germany even when controlling for a rich set of explanatory variables. This is remarkable as we consider women with minor children in our separation and cohabitation regressions. The result is supportive of the hypothesis that East Germany is characterized by more equal gender roles. These more equal gender roles make women less dependent on a male partner so they are more willing to choose a less stable partnership arrangement even if they have children.

    On a whole, our analysis suggests that cultural factors play a role in the East-West differences in both out-of-partnership births and separations. However, with respect to separations, we find that also economic factors contribute to the differences between East and West Germany. Our estimates provide no evidence that the availability of child care can explain the higher rates of out-of-partnership births and separations in East Germany.

    On a broader scale, our study contributes to the literature on behavioral and cultural differences between East and West Germans. This literature indicates that the exposure to 45 years of communism in East Germany has had substantial long-term influences on solidarity and cooperation, social distrust, personality traits, and preferences for state intervention (Alesina and Fuchs-Schundeln 2007, Ariely et al. 2014, Friehe et al. 2015, Brosig-Koch et al. 2011, Heineck and Sussmuth 2013, Heywood et al. 2017, Lichter et al. 2015, Ockenfels and Weimann 1999, Rainer and Siedler 2009). Our study shows that there are also long-term consequences with respect to fertility and family.

    The rest of this article is organized as follows. In the second section, we provide our background discussion. The third section presents the data and variables while the fourth section provides the estimation results. The fifth section concludes.

  2. Background Discussion

    2.1. Economic Situation

    East Germany is still characterized by relatively poor labor market outcomes. In the year 2009, the unemployment rate amounted to 13 percent in East Germany compared to 7 percent in West Germany. (2) The average gross monthly wage of a fulltime employee was 2486 Euro in East Germany compared to 3248 Euro in West Germany. (3) Considering the economic theory of family, the poor labor market outcomes should play a role in the higher share of single parents in East Germany.

    The economic theory of family assumes that joint production and consumption within a household is the reason for the formation of marital and cohabiting partnerships (see Bergstrom 1997 and Weiss 1997 for surveys). Consumption benefits result from consuming household public goods (including children). Gains in the production of household commodities result from economies of scale and returns to specialization. According to this theory, a man and a woman only form and sustain a partnership if the surplus generated by the partnership is sufficiently high. Other things equal, the size of the surplus depends on the partners' earnings capacity. Given the traditional specialization within families with women being disproportionately responsible for household labor and men being responsible for market labor, specifically a low earnings capacity of men should entail a smaller size of the surplus. This makes the formation of a partnership less likely (Willis 1999, Wilson 1987) and the dissolution of an existing partnership more likely (Becker et al. 1977, Weiss and Willis 1997).

    Thus, the poor economic situation in East Germany may entail both a higher rate of out-of-partnership-births and a higher rate of separations. If single women in East Germany have a smaller chance to find a partner who brings resources to the partnership, they may decide to have a child without a partner. East German women living in a partnership may more often decide to search for a new partner or to raise their children as a single mother if the earnings capacities of their current partners more frequently turn out to be low.

    2.2. Availability of Child Care

    Availability of child care may be a second factor influencing the differences in single parenthood between East and West Germany. The socialist regime in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) built up a comprehensive child care system. After German reunification the comprehensive child care system has, to a larger extent, survived so that availability of child care is higher in East than in West Germany (Schober and Stahl 2014, Wrohlich 2008).

    As child care allows women to combine family and work, it lowers their financial dependence on a male partner (Bauernschuster and Borck 2012). This in turn may reduce women's incentive to form and sustain a partnership. Thus, a higher availability of child care may result in both a higher rate of out-of-partnership births and a higher rate of separations.

    However, the comprehensive provision of child care was only one component of a family policy in East Germany that substantially differed from the West German one. The socialist regime pursued the goal of equality including the equality of men and women. It encouraged labor force participation of women by policies that helped reconcile work and family life. (4) This policy may have changed gender roles and, thus, may have long-lasting behavioral consequences that persist even after reunification. In what follows, we discuss this possible explanation in more detail.

    2.3. Gender Roles

    During the years of separation, the two parts of Germany differed substantially in their family policies (Engelhardt et al. 2002, Hiekel et al. 2015, Pfau-Effinger and Geissler 2002, Rosenfeld et al. 2004). In West Germany, family policy was dominated for a long time by the traditional male breadwinner model. Instead of facilitating women's employment opportunities, the government focused on parental leave policies allowing mothers to stay at home with their children. By contrast, the family policy in East Germany promoted more equal gender roles. The main goals of East German family policy were to integrate women into full-employment and to encourage childbearing. The communist regime not only built up a comprehensive child care system that allowed women to stay in the labor force...

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