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Single Moms Often Put Kids' Health Care First, Study Finds

TUESDAY, Feb. 26, 2019 -- When times are tough, single moms tend to spend more on their children's health care than on their own, a new study finds.

But two-parent families are less likely to make that change, the researchers said.

The study looked at how losing a job, money or health insurance affects a family's health priorities.

"In particular, we were interested in whether parents sacrifice their own health care spending in favor of spending for children during such times," said Alan Monheit. He is a professor of health economics and public policy at Rutgers School of Public Health in New Brunswick, N.J.

The team used data from the 2004 to 2012 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey to look at health care spending for nearly 9,000 families.

The investigators found that both actual income losses and expectations of lost income affected health care spending decisions of single mothers differently than two-parent families.

"Single mothers shift health spending away from themselves and to their children," Monheit said in a Rutgers news release.

In single-parent families, the shift affects all health care spending, such as spending on outpatient care, doctors' office-based care and dental care. No such shifts were found in two-parent families, he said.

The findings seem to speak to altruistic behavior by single mothers toward their children, and to their vulnerability compared with two-parent families.

"Our findings may reflect the constrained economic circumstances of many single-mother families, and the difficult tradeoffs such families must make to maintain the welfare of their children," Monheit suggested.

Being unable to afford health care can delay treatment, which can affect health and send more people to emergency rooms for their health care, increasing health care costs for society, he noted.

The research raises two important questions. "First, is the shift in spending in single-mother families in response to an economic shock likely to be transitory or longer-term in nature? Second," Monheit said, "are existing public policy interventions, such as the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion and Medicaid/CHIP programs in non-expansion states, sufficient to address the health spending consequences?"

The report was recently published in the journal Review of Economics of the Household.

More information

For more on health care spending, visit the American Medical Association.

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Posted: February 2019

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