The Latest on Single Parenthood from Sara McLanahan

December 11, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

As we’d expect from Sara McLanahan, this article is an excellent review of the latest information on single parenthood and its effects on children (Education Next, 12/9/14).As before, the news isn’t good. McLanahan is a sociologist at Princeton who, since 1998 has headed up the Fragile Families and Child Well-being survey. It’s a longitudinal survey of 5,000 poor families, mostly black and Hispanic in medium-to-large American cities. Periodically, researchers re-contact those families and gather more data on them. Those data can then be analyzed for a large range of variables. In all, the Fragile Families data have proved to be a treasure trove of information for understanding families that are poor and otherwise disadvantaged.

But in this article, McLanahan goes into areas other than just those applicable to the type of families in the FFCW survey. She brings us up to date on trends in single parenthood generally and its effects on children.

In 1965, when Moynihan’s report was released, roughly 25 percent of black children and 5 percent of white children lived in families headed by an unmarried mother. These percentages rose rapidly over the next two decades, reaching about 50 percent among blacks and 15 percent among whites by the early 1980s. After that, the rate of increase among blacks slowed. Fifty-four percent of black children were being raised by an unmarried mother in the early 1990s; about 50 percent were in 2003. The level has remained close to 50 percent since 2003. Among whites, the rate also rose slowly until the mid-1990s but has fluctuated between about 18 and 20 percent since then (see Figure 1).

As whites constitute a substantial majority of Americans, whites also comprise the largest share of single-mother families. The racial makeup of single-mother families has not changed very much over time. In 1970, 31 percent of single-mother families were black, 68 percent were white, and 1 percent were “other race.” In 2013, the figures were 30 percent black, 62 percent white, and 8 percent “other.”

In other words, as we know, the trend toward single parenthood has increased over the years and continues to do so among white and Hispanic families. A question I’ve always wanted answered is “How much of that is caused by non-marriage and how much has to do with divorce courts’ marginalizing one parent in the children’s lives?” McLanahan doesn’t answer that (I’m not sure anyone can), but she offers some interesting figures.

The meaning of single motherhood has also changed since the 1960s. Today’s single mothers are far less likely than their predecessors to have ever been married. In 1960, 95 percent of single mothers had been married at some point in the past. The major sources of single motherhood were separation from a spouse, divorce, and widowhood, in that order. By 2013, only half of all single mothers had ever been married.

Few single mothers got that way because their husband died, so it seems reasonable to conclude that somewhat less than half of all single mothers became single due to divorce. That would be about 12% of all children.

But oddly, that’s the good news. Children whose mother divorced their father at least had a few years with him. Children whose mother never married their father may well have had none.

The historical shift from formerly married to never-married mothers has meant that single motherhood usually occurs earlier in a child’s life. Mothers who marry and then divorce typically spend a number of years with their husband before separating. Today, many women become single mothers when their first child is born. The shift to never-married motherhood has probably weakened the economic and emotional ties between children and their absent fathers.

Worse yet is the fact that those mothers who haven’t married the fathers of their children are overwhelmingly undereducated. Among both whites and blacks, far more single mothers haven’t completed college (many haven’t even completed high school) than those who have at least a bachelor’s degree. That’s bad news for a number of reasons.

The fact that single motherhood is increasing faster among women with less than a college degree means that children growing up with a single mother are likely to be doubly disadvantaged. They spend less time and receive less money from their biological fathers than children who live with their fathers. At the same time, the primary breadwinner in the family—the mother—has lower earnings than the typical mother in a married-parent family. The official poverty rate in 2013 among all families with children was 40 percent if the family was headed by an unmarried mother and only 8 percent if the family was headed by a married couple (see Figure 4). Among blacks, the rates were 46 percent in single-mother families and 12 percent in married-parent families. Among Hispanics, the figures were 47 percent and 18 percent, and among whites the rates were 32 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

Again, single-parent households and poverty, for both mothers and children, go hand in hand.

And children who live with an unmarried mother experience much greater upheaval in their relationships than do those living with married parents.

The study finds that couples who are cohabiting at the time of the child’s birth split up much sooner than couples who were married. Nearly half of cohabiting parents break up within five years of the child’s birth, compared to only 20 percent of married parents.

Those break-ups are followed by the mother having other relationships with men and often other children, resulting in a mixture of relationships for children and several extended families.

The high rate of partner turnover during a mother’s peak fertility years means not only that her children now experience more changes in the adults with whom they live, but also that they are now more likely to have half siblings, who have different fathers, paternal grandparents, and other relatives. Half siblings and their kin create additional complexity in children’s families. In the Fragile Families study, 60 percent of children born to unmarried mothers had a half sibling by the time they were five years old, and 23 percent had half siblings fathered by two or more different men. Among children born to married mothers, the comparable figures are 18 and 6 percent.

Inevitably, with a series of fathers and stepfathers and several half-siblings, the quality of parenting a child receives is lower than in an intact family.

High levels of instability and complexity have important consequences for children’s home environment and the quality of the parenting they receive. Both the departure of a father and the arrival of a mother’s new partner disrupt family routines and are stressful for most children, regardless of whether the father is married to their mother or merely cohabiting with her. A nonresident father may also be less willing to keep paying child support if he believes his payments will be shared with another man’s child. Such problems are magnified in families with several nonresident fathers.

Boys tend to suffer the slings and arrows of single-parenthood more than do girls.

University of Chicago researcher Marianne Bertrand and Jessica Pan of the National University of Singapore investigated several mechanisms that might explain how a father’s absence could affect the educational attainment of sons more than daughters. They found that single mothers spend more time with girls and feel closer to girls than to boys, for example. More important, boys are far more sensitive than girls to parenting practices such as spending time with a child, emotional closeness, and avoiding harsh discipline. These practices, which are much more common in families that include a father, partly explain why boys with absent fathers have more behavior problems and are more likely to be suspended from school. Boys also respond more negatively than girls to having been raised by a teenage mother and to having grown up in a family with below-average income.

With new databases and new analytical techniques, researchers are gathering new data that support the old. As we’ve known in the past, and now we know better, children of single parents tend strongly to do worse in a wide range of matrices than do children of married parents.

[W]hen taken together these studies are beginning to tell a consistent story. A recent review of 45 studies using quasi-experimental methods concluded that growing up apart from one’s father does reduce a child’s life chances in many domains.

The review’s authors examined the effects of a father’s absence on outcomes in four domains: educational attainment, mental health, labor market performance, and family formation. Growing up with only one biological parent reduces a child’s chances of graduating from high school by about 40 percent, which is similar to the effect of having a mother who did not finish high school rather than one who did. The absence of one’s biological father has not been shown to affect a child’s verbal and math test scores, however. The evidence for other indicators of educational performance, such as high school grades, skipping school, and college aspirations, is mixed, with some studies finding that father absence lowers school attendance and aspirations and others finding no effect. Most studies find larger effects on boys than on girls.

How might we reconcile the fact that a father’s absence affects high school graduation with the lack of evidence that it affects test scores? The answer appears to be that a father’s absence increases antisocial behavior, such as aggression, rule breaking, delinquency, and illegal drug use. These antisocial behaviors affect high school completion independent of a child’s verbal and math scores. Thus it appears that a father’s absence lowers children’s educational attainment not by altering their scores on cognitive tests but by disrupting their social and emotional adjustment and reducing their ability or willingness to exercise self-control. The effects of growing up without both parents on aggression, rule breaking, and delinquency are also larger for boys than for girls. Since these traits predict both college attendance and graduation, the spread of single-parent families over the past few decades may have contributed to the growing gender gap in college attendance and graduation. The gender gap in college completion is much more pronounced among children raised by single mothers than among children raised in two-parent families.

Having been written for an educational journal, McLanahan doesn’t delve far beyond the educational problems of single-parent households, but the upshot is what it’s always been; we must get away from the idea that marginalizing fathers in the lives of children is “just another lifestyle choice.”


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