A new Rutgers University study finds single mothers spend more on their children's health care than themselves when there is a decline in family income, but there are no shifts in spending in two-parent families.

Alan Monheit, professor of health economics at Rutgers School of Public Health, says he and his team were motivated by the downturn in economic activity that occurred as part of the Great Recession.

Monheit said they found a shift in spending from mothers to children, consistent with mothers' altruistic feelings toward their children.

Compared to two-parent families, of which Monheit found no shifts in spending between good and bad times, single moms are particularly vulnerable. Their incomes are likely to be lower, they don't have a lot savings or wealth or a cushion to fall back on and, consequently, they take an interest in securing the welfare of their children.

"Two-parent families are simply better situated in terms of their savings, their wealth and they have much more of a cushion that they can fall back upon in order to protect their health care spending," said Monheit.

Also, in two-parent families with both parents potentially working, they can recover faster employment and income faster than in a single mother family, added Monheit.

The study raised two questions. Monheit said one is whether these kinds of interruptions or shifts in health care spending are really short term in nature or do they become sort of institutionalized within the family and become longer term? Second, the other issue is whether the social safety nets such as Medicaid, CHIP and The Affordable Care Act are sufficient to be able to protect single mothers when in fact their family experience a decline in their economic status.

Monheit said he would like to do a follow-up study, extend the data set for several more years and potentially look at implications of the Affordable Care Act on this allocation of health care spending within the family. He and his team are also currently looking at the implications of economic shocks on the family's out-of-pocket spending burden on health care and how that responds to a loss in economic status.

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