Child Well-Being in Single-Parent Families
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 group 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 — 14.5 million — live in mother-only households. More than 6 million kids live with cohabitating parents and 3.5 million kids live in father-only households, according to 2021 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 2021 indicates that:
- Black and American Indian or Alaska Native kids are most likely to live in a single-parent families (64% of Black children and 49% of American Indian or Alaska Native 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 16% of Asian and Pacific Islander children fit this demographic).
- Latino children and multiracial kids fall somewhere in the middle — with 42% and 38% of kids from these groups, respectively, living in a single-parent family.
- Family nativity makes a difference: 37% 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 18% of kids in Utah to a high of 45% of kids in Louisiana and Mississippi living in a single-parent household.
Among the 50 most populous U.S. cities with data in 2021: The share of children in single-parent families ranged from a low of 21% in Seattle to a high of 71% in Detroit. The KIDS COUNT Data Center also breaks this statistic down by Congressional District, which indicates even greater variation locally — from a low of 13% to a high of 69% in New York’s District 15.
Statistics on Single-Parent Homes and Poverty
Family structure and socioeconomic status are linked, according to decades of research. Increasingly, marriage reflects a class divide, as individuals with higher incomes and education levels are much more likely to marry. In 2021, nearly 30% of single parents lived in poverty while just 6% of married couples fit this same statistic. Single parents are also more likely to live in poverty when compared to cohabiting couples, and single mothers are much more likely to be poor 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 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 — such as 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 are also more likely to have poor life outcomes compared to those in higher-income families. Additionally, low-income kids (below or above the poverty line) often live in less safe 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 struggles 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 or Alaska Native 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
While most children in single-parent households grow up to be well-adjusted adults, kids from single-parent families 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 challenges with factors often associated with single-parent families, such as parental stress, parental breakups, witnessing conflict, lost social networks, 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. Solo moms often lack adequate social support, as well.
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 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 or Alaska Native 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, regardless of family structure.
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:
- Report: Family-Centered Community Change
- Report: Opening Doors for Young Parents
- Blog Post: Thrive by 25 Announcement
- Strategies: Economic Opportunity
- Resources: Fatherhood
- Resources: Child Poverty
- Resources: Earned Income Tax Credit
- Resources: Racial Equity and Inclusion
- Resource: KIDS COUNT Data Book
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