Pew Research: Number of Single Fathers Caring for Their Kids at an All-Time High

July 24, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

The Pew Research Center recently came out with some data on single fathers that have pricked a lot of interest. Here’s one article on Pew’s findings (Live Science, 7/2/13).

The finding that’s gotten the most attention is that there are now 2.6 million single fathers in the United States, i.e. the kids live with them. That constitutes about 8% of all households with children under the age of 18. That’s a nine-fold increase in single-father headed households since 1960. As such, the increase in single fathers with children in their homes is outstripping that of mothers by about twice since the early 80s.

Of course that doesn’t mean single dads are anywhere near a majority of single parents. On the contrary, single-mother headed households now account for about 25% of all households with children, or three times the number of single-father headed families.

Other demographics uncovered by Pew throw light on the subject of the ever-changing American family as well.

Single dads are more likely to be living with a partner than single moms (41 percent versus 16 percent). And single fathers, on average, are somewhat less educated, older and more likely to be white than single moms, Pew found. They also tend to make more money; 24 percent of single dads live at or below the poverty line, compared with 43 percent of single moms.

Even so, single dads are worse off financially than married fathers. The median annual income for a household of three led by a single dad is about $40,000, compared with $70,000 for a household headed by a married father and $26,000 for a household led by a single mom, according to Pew.

Compared with married dads, single fathers are also usually younger, less educated, and more likely to be non-white. Among fathers under age 30, 27 percent are single parents. Among dads living below the poverty line, more than one-third, or 36 percent, are single, too.

In short, the Pew data are in line with that of the Census Bureau. Single fathers earn more money than single mothers and therefore, they and their children are less likely to live in poverty. Interestingly, single fathers are much more likely than single mothers to live with a partner. That of course adds another adult to their ability to care for the children. In short, greater income and greater adult supervision occur in single-father headed homes than in those of single mothers.

To my knowledge, there’s little or no social science comparing the outcomes of children raised by single mothers versus those raised by single fathers, so we don’t know whether those father-raised kids have better outcomes, the same or worse outcomes than those raised by single mothers. Certainly money is a major factor when it comes to raising children. The other important factor is how many adults there are to do the job. In both cases, more is better. Greater financial resources help provide care when Dad can’t and another adult adds that person’s time, energy and creativity. So my guess is that kids raised by single fathers would tend to fare better than those raised by single mothers, but as I said, there’s essentially no data to say one way or another.

That said, any increase in single-parent child rearing is bad news. Whatever the sex of the single parent, we’ve known for decades that the best family structure for children consists of two biological parents raising them together. I’m all for increased paternal involvement in the lives of their children, but accomplishing that by sidelining mothers is no improvement over handing children to mothers and shoving Dad out of their lives. Overwhelmingly, children need both biological parents.

The percentage of children in the U.S. living with a single parent now stands at about 33 and rising. That’s bad news, irrespective of the sex of the single parent.

The Pew Center reports that one of the reasons for the increase in the numbers of single fathers is a change in attitudes among family courts about the value of fathers to children. Hmm. I have my doubts. The fact is that we just haven’t seen that in any of the data on custody outcomes. Indeed, even when a state like Oregon enacts legislation designed to give fathers greater access to their children post-divorce, we’ve seen marked resistance by family court judges to implementing the legislature’s intention. Put simply, the legislation had little effect.

So where are all these new single fathers coming from? It looks like the Pew Data and those of the Census Bureau may be in conflict. After all, as I’ve reported many times, the Census Bureau shows essentially no change in either the raw numbers or the percentage of fathers with custody from 1993 to 2009. In 1993, there were about 2.2 million fathers with custody of their kids, or about 16% of all custodial parents. By 2009, the number was about 2.4 million and the percentage had basically not changed. Custodial mothers numbered 11.5 million and 11.2 million respectively.

Now of course custodial parents aren’t necessarily single parents, but the Census Bureau’s 2.4 million custodial fathers in 2009 is very close to Pew’s 2.6 million single fathers in 2011. That suggests that few of those fathers had remarried.

By contrast, the Census Bureau’s 11.2 million custodial mothers in 2009 bear little resemblance to Pew’s 8.6 million single mothers in 2011. The notion that the 2.6 million mom difference is accounted for by mothers remarrying looks fishy to me, particularly in light of the fact that it’s single fathers and not single mothers who tend to partner up. Do single fathers tend to remain single, but with a partner, but mothers tend to remarry? That would be surprising to say the least.

So what explains the increasing numbers of single fathers with kids in their homes? The cheerful notion that courts are giving dads custody more often than in the past is borne out by no empirical data I’ve seen and a fair amount contradicts it. It’s a good question. I’d like to believe that the usual data just aren’t showing an actual increase in paternal custody that Pew reveals, but for the time being, the source of all those single dads caring for their kids looks like a mystery.

Pew’s analysis was based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau. About 52 percent of the men Pew classified as single fathers were separated, divorced, widowed or never married and living without a partner; 41 percent were living with a non-marital partner; and 7 percent were married but not living with their spouse.

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