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A Half-Century of Single Parenting: What’s Changed?

A 2018 report from the Pew Research Center, “The changing profile of unmarried parents,” offers a half-century overview of the place of unmarried parents and their children in the U.S. There are more single parents and children of single parents than ever before. Americans, though, are still stigmatizing them.

Here are 8 things we now know about single parents and their children.

#1

If you are raising children and you are not married, you have lots of company. One out of every four parents (25%) are not married. The increase over time has been dramatic. In 1968, only 7% of all parents were unmarried.

Of all parents living with a child, % who are NOT married

1968  7%

1977  11%

1987  16%

1997  21%

2007  23%

2017  25%

#2

If you are an unmarried parent, are you worried that makes your child different from the others? That was more likely to be true a half-century ago, when only a little more than 1 in 10 children were living with an unmarried parent. Now, nearly 1 in every 3 children is living with an unmarried parent. That just counts their current living arrangement. If instead, every child who ever lived with an unmarried parent had been counted, the numbers would be even higher.

In 1968, 13% of children – 9 million – were living with an unmarried parent.

In 2017, 32% of children – 24 million – were living with an unmarried parent.

#3

Over the past half-century, there have always been more single mothers than single fathers. But the proportion of unmarried fathers (not-cohabiting + cohabiting) has been increasing.

Also, over the past half-century, most unmarried parents are not living with a romantic partner. But over time, the proportion of unmarried parents who are cohabiting with a romantic partner has been increasing.

Of all unmarried parents living with a child, % who are…

Mothers not living with a romantic partner:

1968  88% of all unmarried parents

1997  68% of all unmarried parent

2007  53% of all unmarried parents

Fathers not living with a romantic partner:

1968  12% of all unmarried parents

1997   12% of all unmarried parents

2007  12% of all unmarried parents

Mothers cohabiting with a romantic partner:

1968   0% of all unmarried parents

1997   10% of all unmarried parents

2007  18% of all unmarried parents

Fathers cohabiting with a romantic partner:

1968   0% of all unmarried parents

1997  10% of all unmarried parents

2007 17% of all unmarried parents

All mothers (not cohabiting + cohabiting):

1968  88% of all unmarried parents

1997   78% of all unmarried parents

2007  71% of all unmarried parents

All fathers (not cohabiting + cohabiting):

1968  12% of all unmarried parents

1997  22% of all unmarried parents

2007  29% of all unmarried parents

Cohabiting (mothers + fathers):

1968   0% of all unmarried parents

1997  20% of all unmarried parents

2007 35% of all unmarried parents

#4

How today’s unmarried parents differ, depending on whether they are cohabiting with a romantic partner:

Unmarried parents not living with a romantic partner:

  • Have fewer children
  • Are more likely to be living in poverty (27% of them are, compared to 16% of unmarried parents cohabiting with a romantic partner; 8% of married parents are living in poverty)
  • Are more likely to be living with their parents (23%, compared to 4% of unmarried parents who are living with a romantic partner; among married parents, 4% are living with their parents)

Unmarried parents who are cohabiting with a romantic partner:

  • Are younger than unmarried parents who are not living with a romantic partner
  • Are less educated
  • Are less likely to have ever been married (35% of cohabiting unmarried parents were once married, compared to 52% who are not living with a romantic partner)

#5

Among unmarried parents who are White, proportionately more of them are cohabiting with a romantic partner than not. Among unmarried parents who are Black, proportionately more are not cohabiting with a romantic partner. For Hispanics and Asians, the proportions who are and are not cohabiting with a romantic partner are about the same.

Of all unmarried partners NOT cohabiting with a romantic partner:

42% are White

28% are Black

24% are Hispanic

3% are Asian

Of all unmarried partners COHABITING with a romantic partner:

55% are White

13% are Black

25% are Hispanic

3% are Asian

#6

Very few Americans disparage inter-racial marriage. In contrast, a shockingly high percentage of Americans view single mothers harshly. In the Pew Research Center survey of 2015, no other trend was rated more negatively, and no other trend was disapproved by more than half of the survey participants.

% of Americans saying each of these trends is bad for society:

66% More single women having children without a partner

48% More unmarried couples raising children

40% More children who have parents who are gay or lesbian

39% More couples living together without getting married

36% More mothers of young children working

11% More children who have parents of different races

11% More people of different races marrying each other

#7

The degree to which people put down single mothers differs a lot for different groups of people.

% who say that it is a bad thing that more single women are having children without a partner to help raise them:

  • Highly educated people are more biased against single mothers than less highly educated people (79% of people with a bachelor’s degree or more vs. 48% of those with less than a high school education)
  • Whites disparage single mothers (70%) more than Blacks (65%) or Hispanics (51%)
  • Republicans put down single mothers more than Democrats do (83% vs. 56%)
  • The good news: young people are the least prejudiced against single mothers (52% for 18-to-29-year-olds compared to 73% for those 60 and older). If they stand by their open-minded views as they grow older, this form of singlism will decline over time.

#8

Although it has been open-season on putting down the children of single parents, with overwrought claims that they are doomed, those dire statements are in many cases grossly exaggerated or just plain false. (See, for example, the relevant chapter in Singled Out or the brief book, Single Parents and Their Children: The Good News No One Ever Tells You. Blog posts and other articles are here.)

In the Pew Report I have been summarizing, author Gretchen Livingston refers to the unmarried parents who are not cohabiting with a romantic partner as solo parents. That’s more straightforward than “not cohabiting with a romantic partner,” but I don’t always use it because so many of those parents are living with their parents in multi-generational households.

Turns out, that matters. In one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on how adolescents fare depending on the kind of household they are raised in, the findings surprised everyone who assumes that the children of single parents are doomed. Instead, across the 10 different types of households, the adolescents who did best were those raised in multi-generational households by mothers who had always been single. Yes, that means that they did better than the kids raised in married-parent nuclear family homes. (The original study is here and a reader-friendly discussion is here.)

To all single mothers – and, in fact, all mothers – Happy Mothers Day.

A Half-Century of Single Parenting: What’s Changed?

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single," https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyZysfafOAs. Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.


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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2018). A Half-Century of Single Parenting: What’s Changed?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 14, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/single-at-heart/2018/05/a-half-century-of-single-parenting-whats-changed/

 

Last updated: 11 May 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 11 May 2018
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.