Single-Parent Families

views updated May 23 2018

Single-Parent Families

Single-parent families can be defined as families where a parent lives with dependent children, either alone or in a larger household, without a spouse or partner. There was a rapid and drastic increase in the number of single-parent families in the latter half of the twentieth century. This change has been used by some to argue that we are witnessing the breakdown of the family (defined as a married couple residing with their dependent offspring) with negative effects for children, families, and society (Popenoe 1996). Others suggest that single-parent families have been present in all societies over time and should not be viewed as deviant or problematic, but rather as an alternative family form (Coontz 1997). Regardless of how family diversity is viewed, the increase in and prevalence of families headed by one parent has a major influence on the social, economic, and political context of family life.

Demographic Trends

Globally, one-quarter to one-third of all families are headed by single mothers, calling into question the normativeness of couple headed families. Developed countries, in particular, are experiencing an increase in single-parent families as divorce becomes more common. The United States has the highest percentage of single-parent families (34% in 1998) among developed countries, followed by Canada (22%), Australia (20%), and Denmark (19%). In developing countries, divorce is not as common, but desertion, death, and imprisonment produce single-parent families, primarily headed by women (Kinnear 1999). Rates vary country to country from a low of less than 5 percent in Kuwait to a high of over 40 percent in Botswana and Barbados. In countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, and Tobago more than 25 percent of households are headed by women.

There was a dramatic increase in single-parent families in the United States in the last three decades of the twentieth century; only 13 percent of families were headed by a single parent in 1970. Over one-fourth of children in the United States lived with a single parent in 1996, double the proportion in 1970. Approximately 84 percent of these families are headed by women. Of all single-parent families, the most common are those headed by divorced or separated mothers (58%) followed by never-married mothers (24%). Other family heads include widows (7%), divorced and separated fathers (8.4%), never-married fathers (1.5%), and widowers (0.9%). There is racial variation in the proportion of families headed by a single parent: 22 percent for white, 57 percent for black, and 33 percent for Hispanic families.

Historically, single-parent families were the result of parental death; about one-fourth of children born around the turn of the nineteenth century experienced the death of a parent before they reached age fifteen (Amato 2000). The factors most commonly related to the contemporary U.S. single-parent family are changing social and cultural trends, increased rates of divorce and nonmarital childbearing, increased employment opportunities for women, decreased employment opportunities for men (especially African-American men), and the availability of welfare benefits that enable women to set up their own households (Rodgers 1996). It has been estimated that 50 percent of children born in recent cohorts will spend some part of their childhood with a single parent as a result of separation, divorce, or out-of-marriage births.

The U.S. divorce rate steadily and dramatically increased in the thirty year period 1965 to 1995. In 1965 the divorce rate was 2.5 per 1,000 people, increasing to an all time high of 5.0 in 1985 and declining to 4.4 in 1995. The United States has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, twice that of Denmark, Canada, or the United Kingdom. The divorce rate is highest among lower income couples. Divorce is somewhat higher for African-American couples, with 10.5 percent divorced in 1993, compared to 8.8 of white couples and 7.3 of Hispanic couples. Developing regions of the world are also experiencing an increase in the divorce rate, although the proportions remain low in most regions of Asia and Africa.

Most children live with one parent as the result of divorce, but by 1996 the single-parent home was as likely to involve a never married as a divorced parent. Unmarried women in the United States accounted for nearly one in three births in 1995, compared with one in five in 1980 and one in ten in 1970. The percentage of births to single women varies across race. In 1995, 20 percent of all births to Asian and Pacific Islanders were to single women, compared to 25 percent for white women; 41 percent for women of Hispanic origin; 57 percent for Native American, Eskimo, and Aleut women; and 70 percent for African-American families.

For the most part the increase in births to unwed mothers is the consequence of unplanned, accidental pregnancy coupled with the decision not to marry. This includes teenage mothers who are less likely to marry than pregnant teens in the past, as well as adult women who delay marriage while pursuing educational and career opportunities, increasing the probability of pregnancy outside of marriage. Teens account for almost 13 percent of all births in the United States (23% for African Americans, 23% for Native Americans, and 17% for Hispanic Americans, 11% of white births). Approximately one million adolescent girls become pregnant each year, with half ending in birth. The majority of these pregnancies (67%) involve an adult male over the age of twenty.

Since 1990, births have declined among African-American teens and risen among white teens, who comprise two-thirds of teen mothers. The factors contributing to teen pregnancy and childbirth include lack of close contact with adult role models; peer pressure; family poverty; the perception among many teens that few opportunities for success are available; and inadequate sex education, especially about contraception and family planning (Sidel 1998). Girls who have a positive self-image, high expectations and aspirations for the future, and good relationships with their parents are much less likely to get pregnant than others. The United States has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the world, with 53 births per 1,000 women aged nineteen and younger compared to countries at the lower end of the spectrum such as Denmark (nine births per 1,000), Netherlands (six births per 1,000), and Japan (four births per 1,000). Worldwide adolescents give birth to over 14 million children annually.

Another form of parenthood outside of marriage involves single women choosing to bear or adopt and raise children alone. Technological developments allowing insemination without inter-course contribute to women's choices in this regard. Women choosing to conceive children in this manner include lesbians, who may raise their children as a single parent or with a same-sex partner; and heterosexual women who are in their thirties, single, and want children before they are past childbearing age (Burns and Scott 1994). Although an increase in nonmarital childbirth has occurred among well-educated and professional women, it is more commonly found among women with lower levels of education and income.

The rate of births to women outside of marriage in the United States is similar to rates found in Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and other industrialized countries. In Sweden, nonmarital childbirth is twice as high as in the United States, while in Japan only one percent of all births occur outside of marriage. Several Central American countries have high rates of nonmarital births ranging from 67 percent in Guatemala and El Salvador to 53 percent in Honduras. Four factors explain the rate of births outside marriage in these countries: male migration, male mortality, machismo, and pro-natalist attitudes and policies (Kinnear 1999).

Mother-Only and Father-Only Families

Single-parent families are generally categorized by the sex of the custodial parent (mother-only or father-only families). Mother-only families include widows, divorced and separated women, and never-married mothers. In the case of divorce, mothers are usually given custody in the United States and other developed countries. In Italy, in 1997, for example, 90 percent of children whose parents divorced went into the custody of their mothers. Since the vast majority of single parents are mothers, most of the research focuses on female-headed families. However, regardless of sex, single parents share similar problems and challenges (Grief 1985).

In the past, father-only families formed as a result of widowhood, desertion by the mother, or wives refusing custody. There has been a 25 percent increase in the number of single fathers in the United States—from 1.7 to 2.1 million—from 1995 to 1998. In 1997, Canadian fathers received sole custody in 11 percent of the cases and joint custody in 28 percent. The increase in father-only families is due, in part, to the efforts of fathers to obtain custody of their children. Although most fathers in the United States do not request custody during divorce proceedings, about one-half to two-thirds of those who do are awarded custody. In 1995 2.5 million U.S. children resided with a single father, an increase from 1 percent of children in 1970 to 4 percent. Single fathers in the United States are twice as common in white families (16%) as compared with black families (8%). Although single fathers are slightly better educated than single mothers, on average, both groups are less likely to be college graduates and more likely to have dropped out of high school than married parents.

There are an estimated one million noncustodial mothers in the United States, with 75 percent voluntarily giving up custody. The primary reasons women give up custody include: inadequate financial resources, child's preference for living with the father, difficulty in controlling the children, threats of legal custody battles, and physical or emotional problems experienced by the mother. Almost all (97%) noncustodial mothers actively maintain a relationship with their children (Herrerias 1995).

Fathers increase their chances of getting custody when they pay child support, when the children are older, and when the oldest child is male. Single fathers report that they feel competent as primary parents and, in taking responsibility for the activities of caregiving usually assigned to mothers, are able to develop intimate and affectionate relationships with their children (Risman 1986). Other factors supporting their transition into primary parenthood include financial security, prior involvement in housework and child care during the marriage, satisfaction with child-care arrangements, and a shared sense of responsibility for the marital breakup (Greif 1985).

Challenges of Single-Parenting

Parenthood is challenging under the best of conditions. With one parent, the challenges are multiplied. Coping with childrearing for single parents becomes more difficult because of responsibility overload, when one parent makes all the decisions and provides for all of the family needs; task over-load, when the demands for work, housework, and parenting can be overwhelming for one person; and emotional overload, when the single parent must always be available to meet both their own and their children's emotional needs. Alone or in combination these result in problems for the single parent, including loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

Support from friends and relatives can offset the effects of overload, with friends offering a buffer against loneliness and relatives giving more practical help (Gladow and Ray 1986). One difficulty is asking for help in a society that defines the family as an autonomous unit responsible for its own circumstances and well-being. However, few single parents can successfully raise children alone, despite the social expectation that noncustodial parents (usually the father) should only be responsible for supplemental financial support, while the custodial parent (usually the mother) takes on both parenting and economic roles (Goldscheider and Waite 1991). Some suggest that the ideal of an independent family head represents a Eurocentric view which is challenged by an African-American model of motherhood (Hill Collins 1994). In this model the importance of caring for and supporting children in the context of community development and social activism is emphasized. Children are cared for and raised by their own mothers (bloodmothers), other women in the community (othermothers), and relatives. African-American children are more likely to live with a grandmother than are white and Hispanic children.

The Effects on Children

In the United States, the effects of single-parent family life on children fall into two categories: (1) those attributed to the lower socioeconomic status of single parents and (2) the short-term consequences of divorce that moderate over time. Four factors are predictive of U.S. children's adjustment to the divorce of their parents: the passage of time, the quality of the children's relationship with their residential parent, the level of conflict between parents, and the economic standing of the children's residential family. In the first few years after a divorce, the children have higher rates of antisocial behavior, aggression, anxiety, and school problems than children in two parent families. However, some of these problems may be attributed to a decrease in available resources and adult super-vision; many of the negative effects disappear when there is adequate supervision, income, and continuity in social networks (McLanahan and Sandefur 1994).

In mother-only families, children tend to experience short-and long-term economic and psychological disadvantages; higher absentee rates at school, lower levels of education, and higher dropout rates (with boys more negatively affected than girls); and more delinquent activity, including alcohol and drug addiction. Adolescents, on the other hand, are more negatively affected by parental discord prior to divorce than by living in single-parent families and actually gain in responsibility as a result of altered family routines (Demo and Acock 1991). Children in single-mother homes are also more likely to experience health-related problems as a result of the decline in their living standard, including the lack of health insurance (Mauldin 1990). Later, as children from single-parent families become adults, they are more likely to marry early, have children early, and divorce. Girls are at greater risk of becoming single mothers as a result of nonmarital childbearing or divorce (McLanahan and Booth 1989). Although the research findings are mixed on long-term effects, the majority of children adjust and recover and do not experience severe problems over time (Coontz 1997).

A common explanation for the problems found among the children of single parents has been the absence of a male adult in the family (Gongla 1982). The relationship between children and non-custodial fathers can be difficult and strained. Fathers often become disinterested and detached from their children; in one study more than 60 percent of fathers either did not visit their children or had no contact with them for over a year. The loss of a father in the family can have implications beyond childhood (Wallerstein and Blakeslee 1989). However, the lack of a male presence may not be as critical as the lack of a male income to the family. The economic deprivation of single-parent family life, in combination with other sources of strain and stress, is a major source of the problems experienced by both parents and children.

Economics of Single-Parent Family Life

The most profound effect of divorce is economic deprivation for mother-only families. For example, in the United States, the custodial mother's and children's standard of living is reduced by 30 percent on average while the noncustodial father's standard of living increases by 15 percent (Hoffman and Duncan 1988). The typical pattern for both middle-class and working-class newly divorced mothers in Western societies is to move into inadequate apartments in undesirable neighborhoods due to the scarcity of affordable housing that will accommodate children (Wekerle 1985). The result is that they often leave their social networks and sources of support at the same time that they are forced to enter the labor force or increase their working hours. For single parents the housing/employment issue is one of affordability and geographic proximity and access to jobs that pay a living wage (Mulroy 1995). In addition, teenage mothers face economic adversity with the interruption of their education. As teen mothers move into adulthood they often remain unskilled, unemployed, and unemployable (Sidel 1998).

Child support, money paid by the noncustodial parent to the custodial parent toward the support of the children, does not offset the economic deprivation experienced by single-parent families. Since mothers retain custody in the majority of cases, fathers are typically ordered to pay child support. However, award levels have consistently accounted for less than half of the expense of supporting a child, representing about 10 percent of the noncustodial father's income. According to one study, a father's child support payments average less than his car payments (Pearce 1990). Despite recent U.S. legislation (Family Support Acts of 1988 and 1994), many fathers do not pay court-ordered child support payments. In 1997, 68 percent of custodial mothers with children under the age of eighteen received full (42%) or partial (27%) child support payments, leaving a third without any payment. The average amount received by U.S. mothers in 1997 was $3,700, an increase of $400 from 1994. Women below the poverty level are the least likely to be awarded or to receive child support. Black and Hispanic mothers are even less likely to be awarded support or to benefit from payments (Rodgers 1996).

When the situation is reversed and custody is granted to the father, mothers are ordered to pay lower child support awards since fathers tend to have higher incomes. Mothers still pay an average of $3,300 to custodial U.S. fathers, although only one-third pay in full. Compared to noncustodial mothers who do not pay support, mothers who pay support earn a higher income, have more regular visitation with their children, are consulted more by the fathers, and have more positive feelings about their arrangement (Greif 1986).

The economics of single-parent family life mean that single mothers are disproportionately represented among the poor. Among U.S. households headed by single mothers in 1998, one-third lived below the poverty line, compared to 12 percent of male-headed families. In 1999, 42 percent of children living in female-headed families were poor, compared to 18 percent in male-headed families, and 8 percent in couple-headed families. Overall, women with dependent children comprise two-thirds of the poor population, a phenomenon referred to as the "feminization of poverty." This is especially pronounced for African-American and Hispanic women who head families, with 43 and 51 percent, respectively, living below the poverty line, compared to 31 percent of white mothers who head families. African-American (14.7%) and Hispanic (16.8%) single fathers are also more likely to be living below the poverty line than their white male counterparts (10.8%).

Around the world women make up the majority (70%) of the 1.3 billion people who live in poverty. The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (1996) estimates that women constitute almost 60 percent of the world's population, perform two-thirds of all working hours, receive only one-tenth of the world's income, and own less than 1 percent of the world's wealth. The poverty of families headed by women can be attributed to the fact that women's roles are primarily domestic (mother, homemaker), undervalued, and unpaid. In addition, when women work for wages they make significantly less than their male counterparts. Even full-time employment does not guarantee financial security, given the structure of the labor force, the lower wages paid in female-dominated occupations, and the lower human capital investment of single mothers (education, training, and work experience). However, even when controlling for education and work place experience, women earn less than men, a global pattern that holds true across all racial and ethnic groups throughout the occupations. In the developed world, the United States and Canada have the highest wage gap (75%) and the Scandinavian countries have the lowest (80% to 94%).

Gender differences in earnings are exacerbated by race; in 1995, the median income for full-time year-round work in the United States was $22,900 for white women, $20,700 for African-American women, and $17,200 for Hispanic women. Whereas the majority of single mothers worked for wages in 1997 (79%), one-third were employed part-time or part-year only. Single fathers, on the other hand, were more likely to be working full-time (77%), with only 17 percent working part-time or part-year. In addition, single mothers are more likely than other employees to experience layoffs, they receive fewer fringe benefits, and they pay higher expenses for childcare (Kinnear 1999). In developing countries, families are often disrupted as parents leave home to find work. For example, Filipina women regularly migrate to Hong Kong to work as domestics on multiple-year contracts managed by the government. They leave their children in the Philippines and send money for their support since the wages earned in Hong Kong ($325 month) exceed what they could earn at home ($125 month).

The income of mothers heading families, supplemented by child support and transfer payments, is used to support the family. In the United States child support and alimony together account for about 10 percent of the total income of white mothers and for about 3.5 percent of the income of African-American mothers. However, alimony or spousal support is awarded in less than 15 percent of all divorce cases, is received in less than 7 percent, and has been virtually eliminated in marriages ending in fewer than five years (Weitzman 1985).

Another source of support essential to the ability of single parents to manage the demands of work and home is child care. A disruption in child-care arrangements can be stressful for any family in which both parents work; for the single-parent family, it can create an immediate crisis. Single mothers report that childcare is one of the most difficult obstacles in their efforts to provide for their families through paid employment (Kamerman and Kahn 1988). European and Scandinavian countries are ahead of the United States in developing government subsidized comprehensive childcare programs. France and Sweden, in particular, provide a model of supporting working mothers, with resulting low rates of poverty among mother-only families, along with modest levels of public dependency (Garfinkle and McLanahan 1994). Japan also provides high-quality, affordable day care for working mothers; poor families receive the service free (Rodgers 1996).

Public Assistance for Single-Parent Families

An alternative or supplement to paid employment for U.S. single parents is public assistance in the form of Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), formerly Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). This means-tested program, established in 1935 as part of the Social Security Act, was originally designed to support mothers and children who had lost a male earner in the family, allowing the mother to stay at home. Historically, welfare policy was based on a distinction between worthy women who were dependent through no fault of their own (widows) and undeserving mothers who were divorced or never married. Program regulations were developed in ways that reflected this distinction, along with racist assumptions about the role of immigrant and African-American women within both the family and the paid labor force.

Welfare reform and the resulting TANF program represent a change in societal views about women's roles in the family and at work. The assumption is that mothers can and should work to support their families and that public support should be temporary and supplemental. TANF placed a lifetime limit of five years on welfare eligibility, required that within five years one-half of a state's caseload was to be enrolled in jobs or jobrelated activities, and excluded college education from the list of qualified work and training activities. As a result, the welfare rolls dropped dramatically from 14.2 million in 1994 to 7.6 million in 1998, a decline of more than 40 percent. At the same time the number of children living at the lowest levels of poverty (less than $6,401 in 1997) grew by 400,000 between 1995 and 1997.

Only about half of all mother-only families receive welfare benefits at any given time. In recent years the rate of participation in at least one public assistance program plummeted from 45 percent in 1993 to 38 percent in 1997. Regardless, public assistance, including non-cash transfers, maintains families well below the U.S. poverty line.

Other developed countries, particularly those in Western Europe, have maintained the goal of supporting mothers to stay at home if they wish. In Great Britain, for example, mothers are not pressured to find work outside the home, and child allowances, national health services, and access to public housing are provided. In Norway single parents receive a child allowance, a child care cash benefit, an education benefit, a housing allowance, and transitional and advanced cash benefits. While most single parents (90%) have incomes less than half the median family income, only 9 percent of all children in single-parent families fall below the poverty line. Developing countries are less likely to have formalized assistance programs in place, although there are grassroots efforts such as the AIDS Support Organization in Uganda to aid widows and their children and Dwip Unnayam Sangstha in Bangladesh to help divorced and widowed women and their children.

Views of Single-Parent Families

Societal views about single-parent families are expressed in social policies and agendas. U.S. policies, especially those relating to welfare, child care, and family/work support, reflect disapproval of families needing public support, single-parent families in particular. Divorced or "broken" families as they are sometimes called are seen as deviant and a threat to the social order (Faust and McKibben 1999). Other Western countries support the wellbeing of children regardless of the number of parents with programs such as guaranteed child-support payments, health insurance, child care, maternity and parenting benefits, and housing subsidies. Although all families are well-supported, couple-headed families are valued over other family forms.

In many areas of the Third World single mothers are socially ostracized and seen as having inferior status (Kinnear 1999). In the case of widowhood, women are not allowed to inherit property or possessions in many countries where other sources of support are not provided. In the past, unmarried women (with or without children) would have been cared for by the family system, which has been weakened as a result of urbanization. In these patriarchal societies men and women do not share equally the limited resources available to families. Development, especially strategies based on capitalism, worsens the situation for women.

Societal views are also expressed in public discourse about women living outside of marriage and family who fail to live up to the ideals of motherhood imposed through legal and public policies. Feminists argue that efforts to control women's sexuality and enforce mothers' economic dependence upon men are part of a backlash designed to limit women's mobility and freedom (Silva 1996). Rather than attempt to force women into a traditional mold, more institutional support for the new type of dual-earner and single-parent family prevalent today is needed.

See also:Academic Achievement; Adolescent Parenthood; Adoption; Childcare; Divorce: Effects on Children; Family Policy; Fatherhood; Health and Families; Housing; Juvenile Delinquency; Loneliness; Motherhood; Nonmarital Childbearing; Poverty; Socioeconomic Status; Stress; Widowhood; Work and Family


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Single-Parent Families

views updated May 21 2018


Although the term "single-parent family" is a familiar one, upon careful examination, the precise definition of a single-parent family becomes less clear. Families are frequently (although not exclusively) identified on the basis of shared residential space and the presence of emotional bonds and support relationships among members. "Single parent" implies that a solo mother or father is responsible for the care of one or more children under the age of eighteen within such a family. For the purposes of this article, single-parent families will be defined according to these guidelines.

Such a definition, however, oversimplifies the diversity of circumstances that may define the lives of single-parent families. For example, single parents are usually fathers or mothers, but they are sometimes single grandparents raising grandchildren. Single parents may represent any of a variety of sexual orientations. They may be biological, adoptive, or foster parents. They may have arrived at their current life circumstances through divorce, separation, or death of a spouse, or may never have married at all. They may have become single parents during adolescence (often because of an unplanned pregnancy) or in early or middle adulthood (because of an unplanned pregnancy, through a deliberate decision to become a single parent, or because of a divorce, separation, or death of a spouse). In many cases, families classified as single parent by researchers or census takers actually involve a committed residential coparenting relationship, but one that is not legally recognized. Finally, many families progress through a variety of family structures over time (e.g., outside-of-marriage adolescent single parenthood, followed by marriage and subsequent postdivorce single parenthood). This diversity and fluidity among single-parent families is typically underrecognized in research and by the media.

The Prevalence of Single-Parent Families in America

It has been predicted that half of all American children born in the 1990s will spend some part of their childhood in single-parent homes. Figures available from the U.S. Bureau of the Census (which yielded all of the statistics presented here) indicate that the percent of American homes that were single parent in composition increased dramatically from 1970 (when 18.5% of homes were single parent) to 1999 (27.7%).

Such increases are accounted for by rising divorce rates (5.7% of first-time marriages ended in divorce in 1970, while 18.5% of such marriages ended in divorce in 1998) and an increase in the number of women who give birth to or adopt children outside of marital relationships. Women giving birth outside of marital relationships include adolescent mothers and increasing numbers of older, more affluent (and predominantly white) women, who have elected to become single parents through either out-of-marriage births or adoption. Such women are called single mothers by choice.

There are ethnic differences in the prevalence of single-parent families. In 1999 the rate of single-parent families among black families was 56 percent; among Hispanic families, 32 percent; and among white families, 20 percent. Higher rates of black single-parent families result from higher rates of out-of-marriage adolescent childbearing within this group and higher divorce rates among black women.

The Well-Being of Children Raised in Single-Parent Homes

When compared to their peers from traditional two-parent homes, children raised in single-parent homes are at risk for a number of less desirable outcomes. Such outcomes include both lower academic performance and a higher incidence of behavioral problems. It would be a mistake to conclude, however, that such negative outcomes were the direct consequence of the number of parents in the home or, as has been suggested on occasion, the absence of a father figure in a child's life. Instead, children are adversely affected by circumstances that co-occur with single-parent family configurations (such as economic disadvantage, residential instability, and interparental conflict) or are the consequence of such configurations (such as disrupted parenting). Such circumstances are not uniformly present in the lives of all single-parent families. Consequently, children from different types of single-parent families are at differential risk for adverse outcomes associated with their living arrangements.

A greater percentage of single-parent families (57.4% in 1999) than two-parent families (6.3%) live below the poverty line. The percentage of single-parent families below the poverty line is highest for adolescent single mothers and lowest for widowed mothers. In addition, a higher percentage of single mothers than single fathers lives below the poverty line. Economic disadvantage is linked with lower academic achievement and increased behavioral problems among children. Fewer economic resources are also linked with residential instability, which further contributes to children's academic and behavioral difficulties. Differences in well-being for children from single-parent families versus two-parent families typically disappear when differences in economic circumstances are taken into account.

Families that attain their single-parent status through marital dissolution are disproportionately more likely to experience both residential instability and higher rates of interparental conflict (both prior and subsequent to marital disruption). Children who are exposed to interparental conflict are more likely to experience difficulties with regard to psychological and behavioral adjustment and academic achievement. Again, once levels of interparental conflict are taken into account, differences in well-being for children from single-parent families versus two-parent families are reduced.

Finally, children from all family types are at risk when they experience parenting that is inadequate in terms of warmth, control, or monitoring. Less than optimal parenting is more likely to be observed in families that are experiencing economic stress and among adolescent mothers (although a large part of this association may be explained by the greater likelihood that adolescent single mothers will experience economic disadvantage). Psychologist Mavis Hetherington has found that the parenting skills of mothers tend to diminish in the years immediately following divorce, and children who are exposed to such disruptions in parenting experience concurrent psychological, behavioral, and academic difficulties. As mothers adjust to their new single-parent status, however, their parenting improves, as does their children's well-being.

Single Fathers Compared to Single Mothers

The overwhelming majority of single-parent families are headed by mothers (84% of all single-parent families in 1998), rather than fathers (16%). Still, the number of single fathers has increased since the 1970s (9% of all single-parent homes were father-headed in 1970). The circumstances surrounding the single-parent status of men versus women differ. The greatest percentage of single fathers gained custody of children as the result of parental divorce. Single fathers are more likely to gain custody of children when mothers have either chosen not to retain custody or are perceived to be incompetent. Single fathers are more likely to have custody of older rather than younger children and of boys rather than girls. By and large, the challenges for single fathers and single mothers are similar and include the difficulties of combining parenting responsibilities and employment, and economic disadvantage. On average, single fathers have higher standards of living than do single mothers, which decreases potential stresses within the family. Yet single mothers have been reported to have warmer and more structured relationships with their children than do single fathers. Several studies have indicated that once economic factors are taken into account, children from single-mother families fare better than children from single-father families. Such differences may be accounted for by these parenting differences or by the aforementioned differences in the circumstances surrounding the father custody arrangement.


In summary, single-parent families increased in number and as a percentage of all families from the 1970s to the 1990s. Single-parent families represent a diverse group of parents raising children on their own through a diverse set of circumstances. To understand the ways in which being raised in a single-parent family affects the lives of children, it is necessary to consider the individual circumstances of families in regard to economic disadvantage, residential instability, parenting competencies, and inter-parental conflict.



Amato, Paul R. "Diversity within Single-Parent Families." In David H. Demo, Kartherine R. Allen, and Mark A. Fine eds., Handbook of Family Diversity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Biblarz, Timothy J., and Adrian E. Raftery. "Family Structure, Educational Attainment, and Socioeconomic Success: Rethinking the 'Pathology of Matriarchy."' American Journal of Sociology 105 (1999):321-365.

Heath, Terri, ed. "Single Mothers, Single Fathers." Special issue of Journal of Family Issues 20, no. 4 (1999).

Hetherington, Mavis, Martha Cox, and Roger Cox. "Effects of Divorce on Parents and Children." In Michael E. Lamb ed., Nontraditional Families: Parenting and Child Development. Hills-dale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1982.

Weinraub, Marsha, and Marcy B. Gringlas. "Single Parenthood."In Marc H. Bornstein ed., Handbook of Parenting, Vol. 3: Status and Social Conditions of Parenting. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995.

Anne C.Fletcher

Single-Parent Families

views updated Jun 08 2018

Single-parent families


Single-parent families are families with children under age 18 headed by a parent who is widowed or divorced and not remarried, or by a parent who has never married.


One out of every two children in the United States will live in a single-parent family at some time before they reach age 18. According the United States Census Bureau, in 2002 about 20 million children lived in a household with only their mother or their father. This is more than one-fourth of all children in the United States.

Since 1950, the number of one-parent families has increased substantially. In 1970, about 11 percent of children lived in single-parent families. During the 1970s, divorce became much more common, and the number of families headed by one parent increased rapidly. The number peaked in the 1980s and then declined slightly in the 1990s. By 1996, 31 percent of children lived in single-parent families. In 2002, the number was 28 percent. Many other children have lived in single-parent families for a time before their biological parent remarried, when they moved into a two-parent family with one biological parent and one step parent.

The reasons for single-parent families have also changed. In the mid-twentieth century, most single-parent families came about because of the death of a spouse. In the 1970s and 1980s, most single-parent families were the result of divorce. In the early 2000s, more and more single parents have never married. Many of these single parents live with an adult partner, sometimes even the unmarried father of their child. These families are counted by the Census Bureau as single-parent families, although two adults are present. Still other families are counted as single-parent families if the parents are married, but one is away for an extended period, for example, on military deployment.

The most common type of single-parent family is one that consists of a mother and her biological children. In 2002, 16.5 million or 23 percent of all children were living with their single mother. This group included 48 percent of all African-American children, 16 percent of all non-Hispanic white children, 13 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander children, and 25 percent of children of Hispanic origin. However, these numbers do not give a true picture of household organization, because 11 percent of all children were actually living in homes where their mother was sharing a home with an adult to whom she was not married. This group includes 14 percent of white children, 6 percent of African-American children, 11 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander, and 12 percent of Hispanic children.

Households headed by a single father increased substantially after the early 1980s, reflecting society's changing attitudes about the role of fathers in child rearing. In 1970, only 1 percent of children lived with a single father. In 2002, about 5 percent of children under age 18 lived with their single fathers. Single fathers, however, are much more likely to be divorced than never married and much more likely than single mothers to be sharing a home with an adult to whom they are not married. For example, 33 percent of Caucasian children lived with fathers who were unmarried but cohabiting with another adult. The rate was 29 percent for African-American children, 30 percent for Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 46 percent for children of Hispanic origin. It is clear that not all single-parent families are the same and that within different ethnic and racial groups, the number and type of single-parent families varies considerably.

Adoption by single individuals has also soared. In 1970 only 0.5 to 4 percent of adoptive parents were single. In the 1980s this rate increased from 8 to 34 percent. According the United States Department of Health and Human Services, 33 percent of children adopted from foster care are adopted by single parents.

Common problems

Single-parent families face special challenges. One of these is economic. In 2002, twice as many single-parent families earned less than $30,000 per year compared to families with two parents present. At the opposite end of the spectrum, 39 percent of two-parent families earned more than $75,000 compared to 6 percent of single-mother families and 11 percent of single-father families. Single-parent families are challenged in other ways. Children living with single fathers were the least likely of all children to have health insurance coverage.

Social scientists have found that children growing up in single-parent families are disadvantaged in other ways when compared to a two-biological-parent families. Many of these problems are directly related to the poor economic condition of single-parent families, not just to parenting style. These children are at risk for the following:

  • lower levels of educational achievement
  • twice as likely to drop out of school
  • more likely to become teen parents
  • more conflict with their parent(s)
  • less supervised by adults
  • more likely to become truants
  • more frequently abuse drugs and alcohol
  • more high-risk sexual behavior
  • more likely to join a gang
  • twice as likely to go to jail
  • four times as likely to need help for emotional and behavioral problems
  • more likely to participate in violent crime
  • more likely to commit suicide
  • twice as likely to get divorced in adulthood

Studies have also found that children who live in a two-parent family where one parent is abusive or has a high level of antisocial behavior do not do as well as children whose parents divorce if the child then lives in a single-parent family with the nonabusive parent.

It is important to remember that every single-parent family is different. Children who are living with a widowed mother will have a home life that is different from children with divorced parents or those whose parents were never married. Children of divorced parents will have a wide range of relationships with their parents and parents' partners depending on custody arrangements and the commitment of the non-custodial parent to maintaining a relationship with the child. Despite the fact that children from single-parent families often face a tougher time economically and emotionally than children from two-biological-parent families, children from single-parent families can grow up doing well in school and maintaining healthy behaviors and relationships.

Parental concerns

Being a single parent can be hard and lonely. There is often no other adult with whom to share decision-making, discipline , and financial responsibilities. The full burden of finding responsible childcare, earning a living, and parenting falls on one individual. However, the lack of a second parent often has a less negative impact on children than family instability, lack of structure, and inconsistent enforcement of parental standards. Single parents may want to follow these steps in order to create positive experiences for their children:

  • Find stable, safe child care.
  • Establish a home routine and stick to it.
  • Apply rules and discipline clearly and consistently.
  • Allow the child to be a child and not ask him or her to solve adult problems.
  • Get to know the important people (teachers, coaches, friends) in the child's life.
  • Answer questions about the other parent calmly and honestly.
  • Avoid behavior that causes the child to feel pressed to choose between divorced parents.
  • Explain financial limitations honestly.

When to get help

If parents feel their child is out of control and is not responding to their parenting, they need to get help from the child's school, social service agencies, and mental health professionals. If they feel their own life is spiraling downward and falling apart, they can seek help from many organizations that provide social, emotional, financial, and legal support for single-parent families.



Karst, Patricia. The Single Mother's Survival Guide. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 2000.


Fields, Jason. "Children's Living Arrangements and Characteristics: March 2002." Current Population Reports. United States Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration, June, 2003.

Jaffee, Sara R., et al. "Life with (or without) Father: The Benefits of Living with Two Biological Parents Depend on the Father's Antisocial Behavior." Child Development 74 (January-February 2003): 10927.


Parents without Partners. 1650 South Dixie Highway, Suite 510, Boca Raton, Florida 33431 Web site: <>.

Single and Custodial Fathers Network Inc. Web site: <>.


Single Parent Central. Available online at <> (accessed November 14, 2004.).

Tish Davidson, A.M.

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