Researchers Rense Nieuwenhuis, Kenneth Nelson, Susanne Alm at Stockholm University
Rense Nieuwenhuis, Kenneth Nelson, Susanne Alm. Photo: Daniel Rossetti/Stockholm University


“The risk for working-age singles of ending up in poverty is today almost as large as for single parents. Even though the biggest increase in poverty is for the singles with children, it is the development for the group without children that surprised us most. This is a newly discovered risk group for ending up in poverty, says Susanne Alm, Associate Professor at the Institute for Social Research, SOFI, and corresponding author of the study.

Having a partner protects from poverty

The results show that the percentage of working-age singles – both with and without children – who were considered in risk of poverty has increased massively since the late 1980’s. For single parents it has increased from 7 to around 28 percent, and for singles without parents from 10 to 24 percent. For couples, the increase is far lower, only a few percentage points. If one partner was unemployed, often a second earner still prevented the household from falling into poverty – a protection not available for singles.

“The unemployment insurance has gotten more restrictive and limited the last couple of decades. Today, fewer people qualify, and those who do receive less of their previous wage than before. This is the main reason for the increased poverty among single-adult households” says Rense Nieuwenhuis, Associate Professor in Sociology at SOFI.

Linked social policy changes to singles poverty
– for the first time

The researchers have controlled for, and are able to rule out, other possible explanations for the increase in economic vulnerability, such as changes in the child benefits, social assistance, sickness benefits and active labour market policy. Some changes in the labour market were also analysed, such as the increase of temporary employment and self-employment. This is the first time that researchers have managed to link a change in social policy to the risk of poverty for single-household, according to Kenneth Nelson, Professor in Sociology at SOFI.

”We can now actually show that cutbacks to unemployment insurance have had very negative consequences for the economic positions for single persons. It stands for nearly half of the increase in poverty for this group.” says Kenneth Nelson.

Diagram over the risk of poverty for singles and couples, with and without children.
The results show that the risk of poverty has increased almost equally as much for single adults without children as for single parents.


Sweden has, like many other countries in Western Europe been shifting towards a dual-earner society, where two adults in the households are expected to work and provide for the family. But when the unemployment rates got higher in the beginning of the 1990’s and social policy cutbacks later on were introduced, the dual-earner system produced an unintended consequence, reasons Susanne Alm.

”We can now see that the dual-earner model, that most of the public and the policy makers in Sweden agree on is a good thing, gives an unexpected disadvantage for single households. In the past you could be supported for a shorter period by the society, even if you were single, but today many more fall through the social safety net” says Susanne Alm.

Facts: How the study was done

In the study, register data of 400 000 adults ages 25-64 years, living in Sweden from 1988 to 2011 were analysed. The data were collected from sources including Statistics Sweden. For every year a random sample of about 15 000 individuals was taken, with their income information, their employment situation and their family situation, tracking the evolving poverty of different family types over time.  The researchers then combined the information with two measures of the unemployment insurance system: How many of the unemployed actually qualify for the earnings-related unemployment security and how much of their previous wage the individuals then got.

Definition of poverty used in the study

At risk of poverty is measured as having an annual equivalized disposable household income below 60 per cent of the annual national median. This so-called at-risk-of-poverty threshold is agreed upon by the EU member states and commonly used by the European Commission to monitor social inclusion outcomes in the Member States.


More about the research

Susanne Alm, Kenneth Nelson, Rense Nieuwenhuis, The Diminishing Power of One? Welfare State Retrenchment and Rising Poverty of Single-Adult Households in Sweden 1988–2011, European Sociological Review



Contact information

Susanne Alm, tel 08-16 34 03, email:

Rense Nieuwenhuis, tel 08-16 43 17, email:

Kenneth Nelson, 08-674 71 28, email: