Child Well-Being in Single-Parent Families

Posted August 1, 2022, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

A mother and her child are standing outdoors, each with one arm wrapped around the other. They are looking at each other and smiling. The child has a basketball in hand.

This post high­lights the lat­est sta­tis­tics and demo­graph­ic trends involv­ing sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies. It iden­ti­fies some com­mon hur­dles fac­ing these fam­i­lies and shares oppor­tu­ni­ties for sup­port­ing both sin­gle par­ents and their children.

Defin­ing Chil­dren in Sin­gle-Par­ent Families

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT® Data Cen­ter uses U.S. Cen­sus Bureau data to define chil­dren in sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies. This demo­graph­ic describes any child under age 18 who lives with an unmar­ried par­ent. Chil­dren liv­ing with cohab­it­ing cou­ples are includ­ed in this group, but chil­dren liv­ing with a mar­ried par­ent and step­par­ent are not.

Sta­tis­tics About Chil­dren in Sin­gle-Par­ent Families

In the Unit­ed States today, near­ly 24 mil­lion chil­dren live in a sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­ly. This total, which has been ris­ing for half a cen­tu­ry, cov­ers about one in every three kids across Amer­i­ca. A num­ber of long-term demo­graph­ic trends have fueled this increase, includ­ing: mar­ry­ing lat­er, declin­ing mar­riage rates, increas­ing divorce rates and an uptick in babies born to sin­gle mothers.

With­in sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies, most chil­dren — 15 mil­lion — live in moth­er-only house­holds. Near­ly 6 mil­lion kids live with cohab­i­tat­ing par­ents and some 3 to 4 mil­lion kids live in father-only house­holds, accord­ing to 2019 esti­mates.*

Among unmar­ried par­ents, the share of sin­gle moth­ers has shrunk in recent decades while the share of cohab­it­ing par­ents has grown.

Sta­tis­tics by Race, Eth­nic­i­ty and Fam­i­ly Nativity

The like­li­hood of a child liv­ing in a sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­ly varies by race, eth­nic­i­ty and fam­i­ly nativ­i­ty. Data from 2019 indi­cates that:

  • Black and Amer­i­can Indi­an kids are most like­ly to live in a sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies (64% of Black chil­dren and 52% of Amer­i­can Indi­an chil­dren fit this demographic).
  • White and Asian and Pacif­ic Islander kids are least like­ly to live in a sin­gle-par­ent house­hold (24% of white chil­dren and 15% of Asian and Pacif­ic Islander chil­dren fit this demographic). 
  • Lati­no chil­dren and chil­dren who iden­ti­fy as two or more races fall some­where in the mid­dle — with 40% of kids from these groups liv­ing in a sin­gle-par­ent family.
  • Fam­i­ly nativ­i­ty makes a dif­fer­ence: 38% of kids in U.S,-born fam­i­lies live in a sin­gle-par­ent house­hold com­pared to just 24% of kids in immi­grant families.

Sin­gle-Par­ent Fam­i­ly Dif­fer­ences by State, City and Con­gres­sion­al District

The like­li­hood that a child lives in a sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­ly varies by location.

At the state lev­el, this sta­tis­tic varies — from a low of 20% of kids in Utah to a high of 50% of kids in Louisiana and Mis­sis­sip­pi liv­ing in a sin­gle-par­ent household.

Among the 50 most pop­u­lous U.S. cities with data in 2019: The share of chil­dren in sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies ranged from a low of 21% in Seat­tle to a high of 71% in Cleve­land. The KIDS COUNT Data Cen­ter also breaks this sta­tis­tic down by Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, which indi­cates even greater vari­a­tion local­ly — from a low of 14% to a high of 71% in 2019.

Sta­tis­tics on Sin­gle-Par­ent Homes and Poverty

Fam­i­ly struc­ture and socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus are linked, accord­ing to 2019 data. Near­ly 30% of sin­gle par­ents live in pover­ty while just 6% of mar­ried cou­ples fit this same sta­tis­tic. Among one-par­ent house­holds: Sin­gle par­ents are more like­ly to live in pover­ty when com­pared to cohab­it­ing cou­ples, and sin­gle moth­ers are much more like­ly to be poor when com­pared to sin­gle fathers.

Com­mon Chal­lenges of Sin­gle-Par­ent Families

A num­ber of fac­tors have fueled the rise in sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies. For instance: More peo­ple are opt­ing to mar­ry lat­er in life, skip mar­riage alto­geth­er and have kids out­side of mar­riage. At the same time, mar­riages have grown more like­ly to end in divorce.

More than 20% of chil­dren born to mar­ried cou­ples will expe­ri­ence a divorce by age 9 and more than 50% of kids born to cohab­it­ing cou­ples will expe­ri­ence a parental breakup, accord­ing to some estimates.

Tran­si­tion­ing to a sin­gle-par­ent house­hold can dis­rupt a child’s rou­tines, edu­ca­tion, hous­ing arrange­ment and fam­i­ly income. It can also inten­si­fy the inci­dence of parental con­flict and stress. These changes can be very dif­fi­cult — and even trau­mat­ic — for some children.

Com­pared to kids in in mar­ried-par­ent house­holds, chil­dren in sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies are more like­ly to expe­ri­ence poor out­comes. While the research is com­plex, some­times con­tra­dic­to­ry and evolv­ing, mount­ing evi­dence indi­cates that under­ly­ing fac­tors — strong and sta­ble rela­tion­ships, parental men­tal health, socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus and access to resources — have a greater impact on child suc­cess than does fam­i­ly struc­ture alone.

Chil­dren thrive when they have safe, sta­ble and nur­tur­ing envi­ron­ments and rela­tion­ships, and these con­di­tions and con­nec­tions can exist in any type of family.

Socioe­co­nom­ic Dis­ad­van­tage and its Impact on Children

Sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies — and espe­cial­ly moth­er-only house­holds — are more like­ly to live in pover­ty com­pared to mar­ried-par­ent house­holds. Giv­en this, kids of sin­gle par­ents are more like­ly to expe­ri­ence the con­se­quences of grow­ing up poor. Chil­dren in pover­ty are more like­ly to have phys­i­cal, men­tal and behav­ioral health prob­lems, dis­rupt­ed brain devel­op­ment, short­er edu­ca­tion­al tra­jec­to­ries, con­tact with the child wel­fare and jus­tice sys­tems, employ­ment chal­lenges in adult­hood and more.

Many fam­i­lies are low-income but sit above the fed­er­al­ly-defined pover­ty line. Chil­dren from these fam­i­lies often face sim­i­lar chal­lenges and live in com­mu­ni­ties with lim­it­ed access to qual­i­ty health care, com­pre­hen­sive sup­port ser­vices and enrich­ing activities.

Researchers have also linked pover­ty to parental stress. Sin­gle par­ents may strug­gle to cov­er their family’s basic needs, includ­ing food, util­i­ties, hous­ing, child care, cloth­ing and trans­porta­tion. Nav­i­gat­ing these deci­sions alone — and with lim­it­ed resources — can send stress lev­els soar­ing. High parental stress, in turn, can spark even more chal­lenges and adverse out­comes among the chil­dren involved.

Also worth not­ing: Pover­ty lev­els for Black, Amer­i­can Indi­an and Lati­no chil­dren are con­sis­tent­ly above the nation­al aver­age, and these gen­er­a­tions-long inequities per­sist regard­less of fam­i­ly structure.

Poten­tial Emo­tion­al and Behav­ioral Impact on Children

Kids from sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies grow up are more like­ly to face emo­tion­al and behav­ioral health chal­lenges — like aggres­sion or engag­ing in high-risk behav­iors — when com­pared to peers raised by mar­ried par­ents. Research has linked these health chal­lenges with fac­tors often asso­ci­at­ed with sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies, such as parental stress, lost social net­works, wit­ness­ing con­flict, mov­ing homes and socioe­co­nom­ic hurdles.

Chil­dren of sin­gle moth­ers may face addi­tion­al chal­lenges. For instance: Depres­sion, which can neg­a­tive­ly impact par­ent­ing, is com­mon among recent­ly divorced mothers.

Such hard­ships would be dif­fi­cult for any child. But kids can recov­er and thrive — par­tic­u­lar­ly when raised with the ben­e­fits of nur­tur­ing rela­tion­ships, sta­bil­i­ty, and men­tal health support.

Poten­tial Impact on Child Development

Experts are increas­ing­ly view­ing child devel­op­ment dis­rup­tions through the lens of adverse child­hood expe­ri­ences (ACEs). These poten­tial­ly trau­mat­ic events can take many forms, such as divorce or parental sep­a­ra­tion, pover­ty, men­tal health chal­lenges, sub­stance use and abuse at home, expo­sure to vio­lence, and so forth. ACEs can cause tox­ic stress,” which can lead to last­ing, dele­te­ri­ous dis­rup­tions in a child’s phys­i­cal and men­tal health, edu­ca­tion and oth­er life outcomes.

The risk of ACE expo­sure varies by a child’s race and eth­nic­i­ty, with Amer­i­can Indi­an and Black chil­dren more like­ly to expe­ri­ence mul­ti­ple ACEs than peers from oth­er racial and eth­nic cat­e­gories. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, how­ev­er: The more ACEs a child expe­ri­ences, the greater the risk of harm­ful effects.

Poten­tial Influ­ence on Education

Aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly speak­ing, chil­dren in sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies are more like­ly to drop out of high school when com­pared to peers with mar­ried par­ents. This height­ened risk is like­ly is due to fac­tors asso­ci­at­ed with many sin­gle-par­ent house­holds; research indi­cates that chil­dren with few­er eco­nom­ic resources, more fam­i­ly insta­bil­i­ty, and more ACEs are at increased risk of poor edu­ca­tion­al out­comes — includ­ing drop­ping out of school.

Changes in Time Spent with Parents

While every fam­i­ly sit­u­a­tion is unique, chil­dren in sin­gle-par­ent house­holds are like­ly to have less time with their par­ent when com­pared to peers in cohab­it­ing- or mar­ried-cou­ple house­holds. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly true if that par­ent works more than one job or long hours to make ends meet.

After a divorce or parental breakup, chil­dren often have less time with their non­res­i­dent par­ent, which is typ­i­cal­ly the father. Main­tain­ing an involved, nur­tur­ing rela­tion­ship with the non­cus­to­di­al par­ent is high­ly impor­tant for a child’s well-being.

A Bet­ter Infra­struc­ture and Stronger Safe­ty Net for Families

Many pro­gram and pol­i­cy strate­gies exist to sup­port chil­dren in sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies and to reduce inequities due to race, eth­nic­i­ty and socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus. For exam­ple, out­comes for these chil­dren can be improved by:

  • Strength­en­ing finan­cial safe­ty net pro­grams and improv­ing afford­able hous­ing, which can reduce insta­bil­i­ty and parental stress.
  • Pro­vid­ing afford­able, acces­si­ble high-qual­i­ty ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion, which has crit­i­cal ben­e­fits for child devel­op­ment and sup­ports parental employ­ment and fam­i­ly stability.
  • Max­i­miz­ing two-gen­er­a­tion com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment strate­gies that improve the qual­i­ty of schools for kids and build job and par­ent­ing skills for the adults in their lives.
  • Offer­ing trau­ma-informed and cul­tur­al­ly appro­pri­ate ser­vices — such as home-vis­it­ing ser­vices, par­ent edu­ca­tion, men­tal health care and sub­stance use treat­ment — that address parental stress and sup­port fam­i­ly relationships.
  • Sup­port­ing the needs of young par­ents and also young fathers, espe­cial­ly those of color.

Strengths of Sin­gle-Par­ent Families

Many sin­gle par­ents pro­vide sta­ble, lov­ing envi­ron­ments and rela­tion­ships for their chil­dren. Exam­ples of how sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies can ben­e­fit chil­dren include:

  • Solo par­ents may have more time to focus on their kids if they no longer need to spend time focus­ing on the needs of their spouse or partner.
  • Years of fight­ing may pre­cede a divorce or sep­a­ra­tion. End­ing this con­flict and pro­vid­ing calm envi­ron­ments can reduce stress for both the chil­dren and parents.

Chang­ing the Con­ver­sa­tion About Chil­dren in Sin­gle-Par­ent Families

Chil­dren can thrive in any fam­i­ly struc­ture, and fam­i­ly struc­tures can change over time. Fam­i­ly types have also become more diverse, with blend­ed step-fam­i­lies, same-sex par­ent fam­i­lies, chil­dren liv­ing with rel­a­tives and more.

In addi­tion, sin­gle par­ents who choose to have kids through donors or sur­ro­ga­cy may not have the same socioe­co­nom­ic dis­ad­van­tages and parental stress asso­ci­at­ed with oth­er sin­gle par­ents. As we think about fam­i­ly struc­ture and sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies, it may be help­ful to keep in mind these nuanced and evolv­ing issues.

For many years, the con­ver­sa­tion among researchers, advo­cates, pol­i­cy­mak­ers and oth­ers regard­ing sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies has focused on how this fam­i­ly type might neg­a­tive­ly affect chil­dren. What if, instead, we focus on what chil­dren need to thrive?

We know that all young peo­ple — includ­ing kids in sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies — flour­ish when they have car­ing, com­mit­ted rela­tion­ships with par­ents or oth­er lov­ing care­givers. We also know the impor­tance of safe, sta­ble homes, com­mu­ni­ties and fam­i­lies that have ade­quate socioe­co­nom­ic resources, social sup­ports and ser­vices. Focus­ing on qual­i­ty-of-life expe­ri­ences and ensur­ing equi­table access to oppor­tu­ni­ties can help young peo­ple reach their full poten­tial.

Learn More About Vul­ner­a­ble Fam­i­lies and Stay Connected

For decades, the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion has pro­mot­ed the well-being of vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren and youth, includ­ing those in sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies. The Foun­da­tion has tracked data, pub­lished resources, sup­port­ed pro­grams and advo­cat­ed for poli­cies to improve the lives of these chil­dren, youth and fam­i­lies. Explore the Foundation’s many pub­li­ca­tions, tools and best prac­tices, blog posts and oth­er resources, such as:

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* These 2019 esti­mates are the lat­est data avail­able from the Amer­i­can Com­mu­ni­ty Sur­vey. Sin­gle-year esti­mates for 2020 were not released. The KIDS COUNT Data Cen­ter will add sin­gle-year esti­mates for 2021 when available.

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