Problems and Strengths of Single-Parent Families

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Problems and Strengths of Single-Parent Families

Magazine article

By: Leslie N. Richards and Cynthia J. Schmiege

Date: July 1993

Source: Richards, Leslie N., and Cynthia J. Schmiege. "Problems and Strengths of Single-Parent Families." Family Relations. 42(3) (July 1993).

About the Author: Leslie N. Richards, who earned a doctorate degree in human development from Cornell University, is an assistant professor in the department of human development and family sciences at Oregon State University. In addition to teaching, she has been involved in a research project involving various longitudinal aspects of human development. She has received numerous grants to fund her research and scholarly works, and has an extensive academic and scholarly publication list. Cynthia J. Schmiege is a faculty member at the Margaret Ritchie School of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Idaho. She received an undergraduate degree in Home Economics from the University of Minnesota, and holds master's and doctorate degrees in human development and family studies. She has published many scholarly and academic works.


There are many types of families in America, and considerably fewer of them fit the mold of the traditional nuclear family (two parents of different genders, two children) during the twenty-first century than was the case during the middle decades of the twentieth. According to the United States Census Bureau data, roughly sixty-eight percent of family groups in America in 2003 consisted of two married parents (married to each other). Of the single parent families reported in 2003, there were roughly four and a half times as many single mothers as single fathers.

Since 1970, the number of single-parent families in America has more than tripled. A significant subgroup of single parents, particularly single mothers, report having made a deliberate decision to parent alone. Some state that they chose to adopt singly, others say that they opted to have a biological child without marriage, or became pregnant unexpectedly and decided to continue the pregnancy and raise the resulting child alone.

A growing number of "nontraditional" single-parent families are being created by gay men and lesbians who either adopt, create biological children through insemination, or have biological children through maternal surrogacy (that is often the case where a gay male employs an egg donor who undergoes artificial insemination, carries through the pregnancy to term, delivers the infant, and surrenders parental rights to the man who then raises the child).

Statistically, the largest group of single parents of either gender remains those who divorced or permanently separated from a spouse or domestic partner, and were either granted sole custody of their children or alternate custody with the other parent. Between the end of World War II and the early 1950s through the 1970s in America, the divorce rate increased. Roughly nine in one thousand marriages ended in divorce in 1960, whereas more than twenty per thousand did so by 1970. Although the rate of divorce plateaued in the late 1990s, divorced people are opting to remain unmarried for longer periods of time than they did in the past, sometimes stating that they are choosing to remain unmarried for most of their adult lives. The increasing rates of single parenthood, both by choice and by through divorce or spousal death, are also occurring in countries other than the United States. Statistics on rising single parenthood have also been published for the United Kingdom, France, and Russia, among others, although the United States remains at the forefront in terms of absolute numbers of single parents.


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According to data published by the United States Bureau of the Census, families headed by single mothers increased by seven million between 1970 and 2003. Single father-headed families increased from less than five hundred thousand to more than two million during the same time period. There are significant racial and ethnic differences concerning the prevalence of single-parent families. According to the 2000 Census, nearly fifty per cent of all African American children live for most of their childhoods in single-parent families. However, there is compelling demographic data, such as that published by Bianchi, or by Ahlburg and DeVita, that more than fifty per cent of all American children will spend some significant portion of their youth living in a single-parent family.

There is considerable research on current realities and long-term outcomes for children living in single families, particularly in those families created by divorce. Although there is considerable variation, much of the sociological and psychological outcome data has been suggestive of some adjustment problems. Essentially, some children from single-parent families have been reported to have increased emotional and adjustment difficulties, and academic and school behavior problems in the short-term relative to their peers in stable two-parent families. Some published longitudinal data suggests that children who grow up in single-parent families are less likely to have stable long-term relationships, tend to marry later but have children earlier, than peers raised by two parent families. Studies published near the end of the twentieth century by Ricciuti and others opposed some of the earlier hypotheses about increased vulnerability of children growing up in single-parent families. The more recent research has suggested that what increases the vulnerability of a child to current and later potential for dysfunction may have considerably more to do with living in poverty or in households in which the primary parent is poorly educated or unemployed than it does with single parenthood per se.

Demographic data indicate that single parents who report that they are not so by choice are the poorest population category (about which census data is routinely collected), and are most likely to remain in poverty for prolonged periods of time. This is true both for the United States and for international populations. Internationally, the published data consistently indicates that children living in single-parent homes are those most likely to be raised in poverty. According to the most current census data available in the United States, more than one-third of mother-headed and more than fifteen per cent of father-headed single families exist in poverty. Although there may be many other contributing factors, growing up in poverty generally involves numerous risk factors that are likely to increase vulnerability for adverse academic and psychological outcomes, such as living in substandard and possibly unsafe housing, having the housing located in areas of transience or increased crime as a result of poverty, having inadequate or poor quality food, and lacking essential medical coverage and services. Impoverished areas generally have inadequate school systems as well. Those are all likely to increase potential for long-term negative outcome, but are attributable to poverty rather than simply to single parenthood. During the middle decades of the twentieth century, there was limited acceptance of single-parent families, regardless of financial status, and even less of mothers who chose to give birth to children while unmarried. Much had changed by the twenty-first century; single parenthood was sometimes a choice and not merely a consequence of marital dissolution or spousal death.



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Web sites

CHE Transitions Web Log: Alumni Letters. "Letters from Alumni: Cynthia J. Schmiege." April 14, 2005 〈〉 (accessed April 15, 2006).

Oregon State University. "Curriculum Vitae: Leslie N. Richards." 〈〉 (accessed June 23, 2006).

U.S. Census Bureau. "America's Families and Living Arrangements: 2003 Population Characteristics." November 2004 〈〉 (accessed June 24, 2006).

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Problems and Strengths of Single-Parent Families

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