Single Parents by Sex and Selected Characteristics

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Single Parents by Sex and Selected Characteristics


By: Jason Fields

Date: November 2004

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

About the Author: Jason Fields joined the U.S. Census Bureau in 1997 as a Family Demographer in the Fertility and Family Statistics Branch of the Population Division. As a demographer in this division, Dr. Fields works extensively on child living arrangements and well-being, family formation and dissolution, unmarried couple partnerships, and grandparent/grandchild co-residence.


The number of families headed by a single parent has been rising steadily since divorces began to increase within a decade after the end of World War II. Although this is particularly the case in the United States, the trend is international as well. According to data published by the United States Census Bureau, the last several decades have indicated a trend toward marrying later, having fewer children, and living as a single parent for longer periods of time. Single parenthood can occur in any of several different ways: divorce, death of spouse or partner, dissolution of domestic partnership or other non-married shared household arrangements, adoption by a single parent, unplanned pregnancy in which custody of the child is either maintained solely by one parent or alternately shared between both parents, or planned single parenthood through intentional pregnancy or surrogacy. Historically, most single parents reported that they became single through death or divorce, and not by choice. During much of the latter half of the twentieth century (and still, to some extent), the statistical majority of single parents, particularly single mothers were young, poorly educated, and living in poverty.

Between 1970 and the early years of the twenty-first century, the percentage of single-parent households rose from 12 to 26 per cent for females, and from 1 to 6 per cent for males, according to reports published by the United States Census Bureau. However, much of that increase occurred between 1970 and the first years of the 1990s; the percentages have remained fairly stable since that time. There is also a significant factor contributing to the overall rise in single parent households, particularly among females, during the past two decades: The number of women who opt to become single parents without ever having been married has increased steadily since the 1970s. According to a National Vital Statistics Report published in 2000, the proportion of single females who have never been married but who have had biological children has been steadily increasing since the year 1970. Adults have also been marrying later in life than has been the case since the end of the nineteenth century, which further increases the chances for an unplanned or unmarried pregnancy and childbirth. Still, the greatest proportion of single parent families in the United States is created by divorce.



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Single parent households may be constituted in several different ways, and may not necessarily be composed of only one adult and her/his children. Other unrelated adults, such as domestic partners and girlfriends/boyfriends, may play roles with varying degrees of responsibility and authority. Other unrelated adults may live, or spend significant time, in the household as well. In addition, there may be related adults or others participating in the family group. It is not uncommon, particularly within Hispanic and African-American unmarried parent families, to have more than one generation, or extended family members, sharing living space. These types of living arrangements are referred to as unrelated and related subfamilies, respectively.

Single parents by sex and selected characteristics: 2003
CharacteristicSingle fathersSingle mothers
TotalRace and ethnicityTotalRace and ethnicity
White onlyBlack onlyHispanic (of any race)White onlyBlack onlyHispanic (of any race)
1Married spouse absent includes separated.
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement, 2003.
All single parents2,2601,7581,33035345010,1426,4714,8703,1241,807
Type of family group
  Family household1,9151,5061,1762853468,1395,1553,6902,5911,357
  Related subfamily2601759762841,5961,003645475390
  Unrelated subfamily8478586204073132655861
Number of own children under 18
  1 child1,4221,1018632282545,5293,6702,8661,563904
  2 children609485353841372,9351,8761,396915530
  3 children1701339028431,223697484443246
  4 or more children5839241315455228125203127
Presence of own children under 18
  With own children under 182,2601,7581,33035345010,1426,4714,8703,1241,807
  With own children under 121,5471,1878462543607,4174,6243,3852,3911,405
  With own children under 68786684301392534,2342,5751,8111,395872
  With own children under 3530404261841522,2871,364956789453
  With own children under 12031621122755734446309241155
  Less than high school450356170641951,9661,267600585736
  High school graduate9537425901461563,5772,2351,7261,169586
  Some college580426269113623,2982,0651,7221,055396
  Bachelor's degree or higher27723430229351,30190482231590
Marital status
  Never married8526013591832574,4132,2551,5071,924850
  Married spouse absent134426420353631,8101,193773479480
Poverty status in 2002
  Below poverty level357239142931003,2681,8491,2141,237730
  At or above poverty level1,9031,5201,1882603496,8754,6223,6561,8871,077

There are racial and ethnic differences among unmarried mothers: white women are the most likely to have been married and to become single mothers as a result of divorce or marital separation, and the least likely to intentionally bear children outside of a marital relationship. African-Americans, statistically, are the most likely to have children when unmarried, or to choose not to marry at all. They are also most likely to have children when still in their teen years, and to live in multigenerational families in which other significant adults, such as parents or grandparents, are instrumental in the raising of their children. Hispanic women who become single after having been married are the population group most likely to live in a related subfamily network, according to a Census Brief on single parent families published in 1997.

Although many people living in single-parent families exist in poverty, that relative number has decreased along with the growing trend among never married, reportedly independent, financially stable, employed, and well-educated women (and men, to a much lesser extent) who choose to become single par-ents, either through birth or adoption. The number of female single parents who receive public assistance, in the form of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), Medicaid, or food stamps has decreased somewhat since the mid-1980s.

Although there are some basic similarities among single parent families, there are considerable distinctions as well. Children who live with divorce, separation, or relationship breakups experience very different stressors, particularly if there are alternating custody arrangements, or shifting blocs of time spent in more than one household, than do children who have always or only lived with a single parent. Children who lost a parent as a result of death have very different experiences than do those in divorce—although both may mourn the loss of a former way of life, there are varying degrees of permanence in the grief process.

Children who are adopted into single parent families have some similarities with the biological children of never married (and divorced, widowed, or separated) single parents, although there are unique stres-sors present for children who have been adopted, particularly when they transition from one culture to another (as in international adoptions) or are adopted into transracial families. Those adopted children may have more in common with adopted children in two-parent families than they do with the biological children of never married single parents.

In a statistical sample that can only look at discrete and pre-defined categories, there are groups of people who are labeled single parents when, in fact, they are living in relationships with other adults to whom they are not legally married. In most areas of the United States this describes children living in two parent families headed by gay men or lesbians. Those children may be raised in homes in which they have two full-time (living in the home, not necessarily home full-time) parents who are not able to marry. The exigencies and stressors of children growing up in households that are not legally sanctioned or socially recognized may vary considerably from, or have almost nothing in common with, those children who are growing up in "true" single parent families.



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Single Parents by Sex and Selected Characteristics

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