Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

The Rise Of Single Parenthood And The Decline Of America

November 4, 1996

Statistics can paint a compelling and grim picture.

A new book, "The State of Americans: This Generation and the Next" (Free Press, publisher), is full of alarming data on changes in economic and family life. The book also compares national survey data with comparable data from other developed countries of Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, France, Holland, Germany and Sweden. One of the contributors, Urie Brofenbrenner, a prominent developmental psychologist from Cornell University, summarizes some of the books main themes.

Economic trends and increasing poverty. America's post World War II economic prosperity ended in 1973. Since then the economy has stalled for all but the wealthiest of Americans. The poorest fifth of families have experienced the greatest decline. The inequality in income between the rich and the poor is far greater in the US than any of the other countries surveyed.

The percentage of children less than 18 years living in poverty in the US is twice as high (20 percent) as Canada and Australia (9 percent). Sweden is at the bottom with 1.6%.

During the 60s and early 70s the percentage of children in poverty dropped from 25 percent to 15 percent. Much of this gain was experienced by black families and their children as they moved out of poverty and into the middle class. Since the mid70s, however, poverty among children has climbed back to 25 percent.

In 1975, about one out of three children in poverty were living in families at 50 percent below the poverty line. By 1994, this percentage jumped to almost half of the children in poverty.

At the same time poverty was rising among children, the rate of poverty among the elderly has decreased. In 1959 the number of adults 65 and older in poverty was 35 percent. By 1973 it was only 15 percent and it has continued to decline, even during times of slow economic growth, to today's level of less than 10 percent.

The rise of single parent families. The United States leads the developed world in children living in a single parent family and also in divorce. The U.S. has the greatest percentage of births to teenage mothers (64 percent). This compares to 32 percent for the United Kingdom, 28 percent for Canada, and 22 percent for Australia. France has 9 percent while Japan has only 4 percent.

In the U.S. 1993 data shows that 73 percent of black single mother families and 61 percent of white single mother families were in poverty. By contrast, 22 percent of black two-parent families and 12 percent of white two-parent families lived in poverty.

The kind of family a child grows up in shapes the kind of family a child will create. Daughters of teenage mothers are more likely to become teenage mothers. Almost half of all U.S. adults raised in single parent families become single parents themselves. Of this total, half are unmarried and half are either separated or divorced. Most children growing up two-parent families married or remarried and formed two-parent families of their own. This was true for 77 percent of those raised by the same two parents and 66 percent raised by remarried parents.

High risk children. Children from single parent families or disrupted families have higher risks for behavior problems. Twenty-three percent of teenagers from two-parent families are sexually active. If the teen comes from a shared custody family, it is 26 percent. If a teen lives in a mother-only family, it is 31 percent; in a step-family, 35 percent; with a relative, 38 percent; with mother and a non-relative, 41 percent and in a father-only family, 44 percent.

Adolescent sexual activity is an element of the "teenage syndrome". This syndrome is an escalating pattern of co-occurring behaviors that include smoking, drinking, early and frequent sexual experience, adolescent pregnancy and a cynical attitude toward work and education. In more extreme cases there are drugs, suicide, vandalism, violence and criminal acts.

Children, particularly boys, from one parent families were most likely to end up dropping out of high school or college. The Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan shows that children raised by their own two parents are the least likely to feel alienated, angry and uninvolved. For children not raised in poverty, a child raised by a single unmarried mother will be four times more as likely to end up in poverty (29 percent) as a child from a two parent family (7 percent).

Unmarried motherhood for whites is increasing faster than for blacks. Brofenbrenner points out that the proportion in poverty of young children of white single parent mothers (43 percent) is about the same as had already been reached by black single-parent mothers in the late 1960s. The curve for white American families is just as steep now as it was for black Americans then.

The powerful conclusion that economists and social scientists are grappling with is that single parenthood has become a producer of poverty and not just a product of it. It has assumed a dynamic and a trajectory of its own.

What can be done? Is there any hope of reversing these disturbing trends? Look for a future column with ideas on how to reverse these distrubing trends.