The Material Well-Being of Single Mother Households in the 1980s and 1990s: What Can We Learn from Food Spending?

Year: 2004

Research Center: The Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago

Investigator: DeLeire, Thomas, and Helen Levy

Institution: Michigan State University

Project Contact:
Thomas DeLeire
Department of Economics
Michigan State University
101 Marshall-Adams Hall
East Lansing, MI 48824
Phone: 517-353-7167


The research objective was to analyze trends from 1986 to 2001 in the composition of the food budgets of single mothers relative to single women without children and to married mothers. During this period, a combination of welfare reform, expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and other policy changes led to increases in the labor supply of single mothers and a decline in their participation in cash welfare programs. This research analyzes whether there was a shift in the composition of the food budget from food consumed at home to food consumed away from home.

Research has shown that single mothers’ food expenditures increased during the 1990s and concludes that single mothers' well-being increased or at least did not decrease. This work re-examines whether single mothers’ well-being changed by exploring the possibility that the increase in food spending may in fact have been driven by a change in the composition of food spending rather than a true increase in consumption. Microdata on food spending from the Consumer Expenditure Survey-Diary Component for 1986-2001 were analyzed. This study used multivariate regression to control for differences in household composition and other observable characteristics, such as race, between single-mother households and other households.

The research results found that the increase in single mothers’ food spending over this period was entirely driven by a shift from spending on food at home to spending on food away from home. The study results suggest that caution is needed before concluding that increases in total expenditure on food results in an improvement in material or nutritional well-being. Given the rise in obesity throughout the general population during this period, these findings also suggest that future research examine whether the changes in the pattern of food spending for single mothers were accompanied by increases in obesity in this subpopulation relative to other groups of women.