U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that the percentage of children living in single-mother families increased from 11 percent in 1970 to 23 percent by 2005. Although the percentage of single-father families also grew, rising from 1 percent in 1970 to 6 percent by 2003, the vast majority of single-parent households involve single mothers. Large race differences are evident: 50 percent of African American children live with a single mother, compared to 35 percent of Hispanic children, 16 percent of white children, and 10 percent of Asian children. Demographers project that half of all children will spend part of their childhood living with a single mother.
Single-mother family structure, however, does not necessarily mean that children live alone with their mother. Moreover, increasing diversity occurs in single-mother family living experiences. Grandparents play a significant role in many single-mother families; about 10 percent of children living with their single mother were the grandchild of the household head. Some single mothers also cohabit with a male partner, a trend that has grown in recent years, with about 11 percent of children in single-mother families living with their mother and her unmarried partner. In some cases, this unmarried partner is the child’s biological father, and such family arrangements of unmarried parents and their children are often referred to as “fragile families.”
Much concern exists regarding the consequences for children growing up in a single-mother family. Poverty rates differ dramatically by family structure, with nearly 6 out of 10 children in single-mother families living near or below poverty: about 45 percent of children living with a divorced mother and 69 percent of children living with a never-married mother. Consistent research findings indicate that children growing up in a single-mother family have, on average, poorer social, economic, and psychological outcomes compared to children growing up with two biological parents. Economic differences between single- and two-parent families explain about half of these differences.
When evaluating the consequences of growing up in a single-parent family, two important issues should be kept in mind. First, while we do have strong evidence of a correlation between family structure and child well-being, the direction of these effects is unclear. That is, the extent to which this relationship is causal (single-parent family structure causes poor outcomes) or due to selection (the findings reflect unmeasured factors that affect both the likelihood of growing up in a single-parent family and the outcomes associated with it) is unclear. Therefore, the causal ordering of effects requires careful attention. Studies that do not take these preexisting differences into account will overstate the effects of growing up in a single-mother family. Second, and more important, even though children growing up in single-mother families tend to experience poorer outcomes, the percentage of children actually experiencing these negative outcomes is far from overwhelming. One study, for example, compared depression rates among children growing up in one- and two-parent families, finding that 18 percent of children growing up in single-parent homes were clinically depressed compared to 14 percent growing up in two-parent families.
These findings suggest that the majority of children growing up with a single mother will not experience depression. However, in relative terms, the risk of experiencing depression was higher (.18 versus .14) in single-mother families, suggesting that living with a single mother increases the risk of mental health problems. The importance of this second point is that while single-parent family structure increases the risk for a variety of outcomes, not all children growing up in single-mother families will experience problems.
Single-mother families have increasingly moved into the policy spotlight. The 1990s represented a decade of substantial changes in government assistance programs used by single mothers and their children. Concern that welfare programs provided adverse incentives both to work and to maintain a two-parent family led Congress to implement a series of changes culminating in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, commonly referred to as “welfare reform.” Because single-mother families made up the vast majority of welfare recipients, they were a specific target of these reforms. Welfare reform aimed to move single mothers from welfare to work, and a stated goal of the 1996 bill was to encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families. Major changes in cash public assistance include a lifetime limit on how long a family can receive assistance (the federal guidelines state no more than 5 years) and work requirements. Other major policy changes largely impacting single-mother families include sharp expansions to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Available to working, low-earning parents, this work support program can raise the after-tax incomes of families by as much as 40 percent, and the EITC is now the largest anti-poverty program for the non-elderly. Welfare reform and a strong economy during the 1990s combined to increase the labor force participation rates of single mothers, but the poverty rate of working, single-mother families failed to decline between 1995 and 1999. Although welfare reform has dramatically reduced the number of families receiving assistance, debate over the long-term consequences of these policy changes continues, as does evaluation of the social and economic well-being of single mothers and their children.
- Chase-Lansdale, Lindsay P. and Andrew J. Cherlin. 1995. “The Long-Term Effects of Parental Divorce on the Mental Health of Young Adults: A Developmental Perspective.” Child Development 66:1614-34.
- Cherlin, Andrew J. 1990. “Going to Extremes: Family Structure, Children’s Well-Being, and Social Science.” Demography 36(4):421-28.
- Lichter, Daniel T. and Rukmalie Jayakody. 2002. “Welfare Reform: How Do We Measure Success?” Annual Review of Sociology 28:117-41.
- McLanahan, Sarah and Gary Sandefur. 2006. Growing Up in a Single Parent Family: What Helps, What Hurts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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