Solo Parenting

When Dan Quayle condemned the television character Murphy Brown for having a child out of wedlock in 1992, he reopened an old debate that quickly became highly polarised.

Some claimed that growing up in a fatherless home was the primary cause of child poverty, delinquency, and school failure, while others denied that single motherhood had any negative consequences. Some were even opposed to discussing the subject out of fear of stigmatizing single mothers and their children.  

It is difficult to avoid discussing single motherhood. More than half of today’s children will spend some or all of their childhood with only one parent, most often their mother. If current trends continue, they will almost certainly face higher poverty rates, school failure, and other issues as they grow older. The long-term consequences could be enormous.

But what exactly are the consequences, and how widespread and concentrated are they among which groups? Do they differ according to whether a single mother is widowed, divorced, or never married? Is it possible that public support for single mothers inadvertently increases the number of women who divorce or decide to have a child independently?

The Disadvantage of Solo-Parent Households

Children who grow up with only one of their biological parents (almost always the mother) face several disadvantages. They are twice as likely as children who grow up with both parents to drop out of high school, 2.5 times as likely to become teen mothers, and 1.4 times as likely to be idle—out of school and out of work. Children from single-parent households have lower grade point averages, fewer college aspirations, and poor attendance records. They have a higher rate of divorce as adults.

Even after controlling for differences in race, parents’ education, number of siblings, and residential location, these patterns persist. However, the evidence does not support the notion that family disruption is the primary cause of high school failure, poverty, and delinquency. While 19% of all children drop out of high school, children from two-parent families drop out at 13%. Thus, if all families had two parents, the dropout rate would be only 33% lower. Children living with a single parent had the same dropout rates as children living with two parents—a highly improbable assumption.


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