The Explosive Rise of Single-Parent Families Is Not a Good Thing

There has been a huge transformation in the way children are raised in the United States: the erosion of the convention of raising children inside a two-parent home. This shift is often not publicly challenged or lamented, in an effort to be inclusive of a diversity of family arrangements. But this well-meaning acceptance obscures the critical reality that this change is hurting our children and our society.

The share of American children living with married parents has dropped considerably: In 2019, only 63 percent lived with married parents, down from 77 percent in 1980. Cohabitation hardly makes up for the difference in these figures. Roughly a quarter of children live in a one-parent home, more than in any other country for which data is available. Despite a small rise in two-parent homes since 2012, the overall trend persists.

This is not a positive development. The evidence is overwhelming: Children from single-parent homes have more behavioral problems, are more likely to get in trouble in school or with the law, achieve lower levels of education and tend to earn lower incomes in adulthood. Boys from homes without dads present are particularly prone to getting in trouble in school or with the law.

Making the trend particularly worrisome is the wide class divide underneath it. In my research, I found that college-educated parents have largely continued to have and raise their children in two-parent homes. It is parents with less than a four-year college degree who have moved away from marriage, and two-parent homes, in large numbers. Only 60 percent of children who live with mothers who graduated from high school, or who have some college education but did not graduate, lived with married parents in 2020, a whopping 23 percentage point drop since 1980. Again, cohabitation does not erase the education divide. Neither does looking at the numbers across race and ethnic groups.

The result is less economic security for affected households and even wider inequality across households and childhood environments than economic changes would have wrought alone.

College-educated adults have seen their earnings rise over recent decades, and they have continued to get married at relatively high rates, typically to one another. Their household income has grown considerably. Meanwhile, adults without a college degree have experienced declining rates of employment and relatively modest increases in wages, while becoming more likely to set up households without a spouse or a partner. As a result of the decline in marriage, the economic security of the high-school educated has weakened even more.

A higher level of income is a key mechanism through which married parents transmit advantages to their children. One-parent homes generally do not have the same income as two-parent homes, even when we compare the homes of mothers of the same age, education level, race and state of residence. This largely reflects a simple fact of math: Two adults have the capacity to earn more than one. Even if one thinks, as I do, that the United States should provide more support to low-income families with children in order to help children thrive and also to secure a stronger work force and future for our country, we will most likely never have a government program that fully compensates single parents with the equivalent of the annual earnings of a spouse who works full-time.

Congress allowed the expanded child tax credit to expire at the end of 2021, rejecting a policy that provided families who met certain income thresholds with annual tax credits of $3,000 per child age 6 to 18 and $3,600 per child under 6. What are the odds that the government will start providing one-parent families with, say, benefits equal to the median earnings of an adult with a high school degree, which comes to around $44,000 a year? I would put the odds at zero. As long as that’s the case, income gaps between one- and two-parent homes will be substantial, and income matters a lot for kids’ prospects and futures.

Income differences are not the only driver of differences in outcomes. A second committed adult in the home can contribute considerable time and energy to taking care of children. We can and should do more as a society to try to compensate for these gaps in parental investments. But again, it is highly unlikely that government or community programs could ever provide children from one-parent homes with a comparable amount of the supervision, nurturing, guidance or help that children from healthy two-parent homes receive. That means a generation of children will grow up more likely to get in trouble and less likely to reach their potential than if they had the benefits of two parents in their home.

It is an economic imperative to break the vicious cycle of a widening class gap in family structure — and more generally, a high share of one-parent homes outside all but the most highly educated groups in society.

That won’t be easy to do. For decades, academics, journalists and advocates have taken a “live and let live” view of family structure. Mostly this reflects a well-intentioned effort to avoid stigmatizing single mothers and to promote acceptance and respect for different family arrangements. But benign intentions have obscured the uncomfortable reality that children do better when they are raised in two-parent homes.

The result is the widespread normalization of one-parent homes outside the college- educated class and woefully little public support for programs aimed at strengthening families. Only 1 percent of the budget of the federal Administration for Children and Families is allocated to “promoting safe and stable families,” as compared to, for example, 15 percent for foster care.

On the other side of the issue, there are people inclined to blame single mothers for having or raising children outside of marriage. But it is not helpful to blame or shame women who are faced with the difficult choice between parenting alone or living with a partner who is an economic or emotional drain on the family. Surely we as a society can openly recognize the advantages of a two-parent home for children and offer a variety of kinds of support to couples who struggle to achieve a stable two-parent family arrangement without stigmatizing single parents and their children. Crucially, we need to bolster parents’ own capacity to thrive and be reliable providers for themselves and their children — including fathers, who were often left out of the conversation.

The issue is complicated, and solutions will necessarily be multifaceted. Just as scholars, journalists and policymakers acknowledge the need to improve schools and debate various reform ideas, those of us who discuss and debate questions of society and policy should be frank about the advantages of a healthy two-parent home for children and challenge ourselves to come up with ways to promote and support that institution.

We need to work more to understand why so many American parents are raising their children without a second parent in the home, and we must find effective ways to strengthen families in order to increase the share of children raised in healthy, stable two-parent homes. Doing so will improve the well-being of millions of children, help close class gaps and create a stronger society for us all.

Melissa S. Kearney is an economics professor at the University of Maryland and author of the forthcoming book “The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind.”

Source photographs by eyenigelen and Jasenka Arbanas/Getty Images

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