Single parents – left largely to their own devices amid the pandemic

Christoph Butterwegge

The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a bright light on the phenomenon of inequality as the cardinal issue facing humanity while also exacerbating it. It has become clear that even with relatively high standards of living and social standards, and despite all of the assurances that Germany is a “classless society” with guaranteed prosperity for all, a large portion of the population cannot make ends meet for even a few weeks without their full regular income.

Gender inequality has increased, too: Women are more likely than men to work in occupations and economic sectors that were hard hit by the pandemic itself, the two lockdowns, and the recession caused by both. Many of them had what are known as “mini” jobs, which were eliminated in the spring of 2020 due to business closures and shutdowns, but they did not qualify for unemployment or short-time work benefits. Even as they saw their earnings shrink, many women faced increasing caregiving burdens, placing them at what has been called a “double disadvantage” (Bettina Kohlrausch/Aline Zucco).

Single parents are among those hardest hit by the pandemic. That is true not just in psychosocial terms, but also financially. Due to the need to care for children under 12 and disabled children at home, the German Infection Protection Act was amended to extend protections to cushion against loss of earnings to 20 weeks, so single parents were able to receive 67 percent of their former net pay, up to 2,016 euros. Retroactively to January 5, 2021, single parents insured in the statutory system and their children can receive child sickness benefits for an initial period of 40 working days. In most cases, the benefit works out to 90 percent of the net pay for work that is lost because these parents have to take care of their children at home during the pandemic due to a childcare facility or school closure or a quarantine measure. For single parents with multiple children, the entitlement rises to a maximum of 90 working days per year.

Germany’s governing grand coalition also granted single parents a higher tax credit for a limited period of two years due to their larger caregiving burden and the additional expenses associated with it. However, it is only available to parents who have to pay tax on a relatively high income. Single parents living in poverty or at risk of poverty – which the Federal Statistical Office estimated at a whopping 42.7 percent of all single parents even before the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown, and recession – do not qualify for this measure because they pay either too little income tax or none at all.

Photo: Wolfgang Schmidt

Christoph Butterwegge (b. 1951) taught political science at the University of Cologne from 1998 until 2016. He ran for election as Germany’s president in 2017. He is part of the panel of experts for the German federal government’s sixth Report on Poverty and Wealth. His published books deal with right-wing extremism; racism and violence (especially youth violence); the development of the social state; economic, social, and political inequality; child poverty and poverty among the elderly; demographic change; globalization; and migration and integration.