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America’s single-parent families


In observance of National Single Parent Day on March 21, it is worth noting that America has one of the highest levels of single-parent families with children in the world. About 30 percent of America’s families with children under 18 years old, amounting to 10 million households, are single-parent families. 

The share of American families with children living with a single parent has tripled since 1965. The large majority of those single-parent families, approximately 75 percent, are headed by a mother only.  

In 2020 nearly 19 million children, amounting to 25 percent of all children in the U.S., were living in single-parent families. That percentage is nearly three times the  level in 1960 of 9 percent. 

America’s proportion of children living with a single parent is more than three times the worldwide level of 7 percent. In neighboring Canada and Mexico the proportions of children living in single-parent families are substantially less, 15 and 7 percent, respectively. The populous countries of China and India have even lower percentages of children living in single-parent families, 3 and 5 percent, respectively.

More than 80 percent of American children in single-parent families live with the mother only. During the 1960 to 2020 period, the percentage of children living with mother only nearly tripled from 8 to 21 percent; those living with father only increased from 1 to 4 percent.

The percentage of children under 18 years old living with a single parent varies considerably among major U.S. social groups. While 21 percent of white children live in a single-parent family, the proportion increases to 28 percent of Hispanic children and is 51 percent of Black children. In addition, over the past half century the percentages have increased rapidly, tripling for white children, more than doubling for Black and increasing by one-third for Hispanic children.

Single mothers are much more likely to be poor than married couples. The poverty rate for single-mother families in 2018 was 34 percent, nearly five times more than the rate of 6 percent for married couple families. 

While single-parent families have become more common in recent decades, the majority of Americans, about two-thirds of adults, view the increase in single parenting as a negative trend for society. At the same time, two-thirds of Americans support a child allowance plan to assist families, with strong majorities among Republicans and Democrats as well as independents. 

However, Americans are receptive to scapegoating single parents, especially single mothers, when not working or viewed not working hard enough. In a recent survey a majority of Americans, 57 percent, said they were somewhat or very concerned that a child allowance open to middle class and low-income families would result in some single mothers reducing the number of hours they work for a wage each week. 

Various reasons for America’s high level of single-parent families have been offered. For example, nearly half of single parents, 48 percent, have never been married. Single-parent mothers, however, are more likely than single parent fathers to have never been married, 51 and 36 percent, respectively.

In addition to declines in the share of people who are married, delays in marriage, increased premarital sex, births to unmarried couples and long-term increases in divorce and separation are believed to have contributed to the rise of single-parent families. Other reasons that have been offered include lack of bonding between mother and father, conflict avoidance, financial instability, unemployment, domestic violence, substance abuse and feeling unworthy.

Nearly 40 years ago President Ronald Reagan proclaimed that March 21 be National Single Parent Day and it would honor the sacrifices and hard work of single parents. He called on Americans to recognize the contributions single parents are making, sometimes under trying circumstances, to raise their children.  

While taking note of the vital contributions of single parents to raising their dependent children, it is widely recognized that children in two parent families fare better in many ways, including in school, personal relationships, social behavior, careers and employment than children with only one parent at home. It is therefore understandable that the desired family arrangement in America is the stable two parent family.

How to reduce the incidence of single-parent families and enhance the opportunities for all children, particularly those in need and living in poverty, continue to be among the major challenges facing America. 

In meeting those difficult challenges, it is instructive to recall that some 80 years ago President Franklin D. Roosevelt established Social Security, a program that has lifted seniors out of poverty. In the past five decades the poverty rate among Americans aged 65 and older has declined by nearly 70 percent and now stands at approximately 9 percent

The recently passed changes to the Child Tax Credit (CTC) is expected to lift more than 4 million children above the poverty level this year, cutting the number of children in poverty by more than 40 percent and drive the child poverty rate down to 8 percent, a historic low.  

It has become abundantly clear that the large majority of Americans and most elected government officials are in favor of providing child allowances to help low- and middle-income parents raise their children, especially those growing up in single-parent families.  

Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, “Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters.”  

Tags Black families poverty rates single mothers

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