We’re Number One!

January 15, 2021 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors


It’s a dubious distinction, but it’s ours.  Yes, in all the world, no nation surpasses the U.S. in the rate at which children live with a single parent (Pew Research, 12/12/2019).  Almost one in four children under the age of 18 lives with one parent and no other adults.  As much social science shows, that happens to be the worst living arrangement for kids (short of, perhaps, foster care or an orphanage).

Our nearest neighbor, Canada, has only 15% of its children living with a single parent.  Even places like Denmark and Russia do better than we do.  Poorer countries, like China and India and nations of sub-Saharan Africa do far better than the U.S., coming in at single digits.  Worldwide, just 7% of kids live with only a single parent.

Now, some of that has to do with our prosperity.  Generally speaking, extended families in less affluent cultures tend to stick together better than those in better-off ones.  Those families can’t afford to split up, but ours can.  That’s true despite the fact that, in the U.S., the family arrangement most likely to live below the poverty line (about 33%) is that of a single mother with kids.  Single fathers with kids earn over 50% more on average than do single mothers with children in the home.

How did this sorry state of affairs come about?  Pew Research doesn’t say outright, but offers a suggestion.

For decades, the share of U.S. children living with a single parent has been rising, accompanied by a decline in marriage rates and a rise in births outside of marriage.   

Yes, those are definitely factors in the number of kids living with single parents.  But marriage rates and out-of-wedlock childbearing are cultural phenomena, largely beyond the reach of the law to influence. 

But, interestingly unmentioned by Pew, other factors contribute to single-parent childrearing that are unquestionably within the purview of public policy and therefore reformable.  I refer of course to the almost complete absence of shared parenting laws, the complete absence of any law requiring an unmarried woman to inform a man that he has a child, no-fault divorce, the absence of laws on paternity fraud, the rules and regulations governing child support that discourage hands-on parenting by non-custodial parents, the demonization of fathers by popular culture, etc.  All of that contributes to the current dysfunctional situation that finds 23% of children having little or no contact with one of their parents, almost always their father.

Unsurprisingly, the preference for mothers over fathers is a worldwide phenomenon.

Women ages 35 to 59 in the U.S., for example, are more likely than men in the same age group to live as single parents (9% vs. 2%), a pattern mirrored in every region and religious group around the world.

Unless absolutely necessary, the rearing of children by a single parent is a bad idea.  It’s mostly bad for kids who tend strongly to suffer from the lack of whichever parent is missing from their lives.  But it’s also bad for the parents who suffer the emotional consequences of separation from their children and the parents who bear the entire weight of childcare.  Whether female or male, those parents are much more likely to live in poverty than all other parents. 

We’ve known this for decades at least.  Who knows?  Some day we may get around to acknowledging what we know and making constructive change.  For now, we’re paying a huge price for our choice to raise a higher percentage of our kids in single-parent homes than any other nation.

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