Sara McLanahan

Recent Articles

The Consequences of Single Motherhood

Children of single-parent families suffer measurable harm. But the problems of the family are far more complex than the popular debate often suggests.

In 1992, when Dan Quayle condemned the television character Murphy Brown for giving birth out of wedlock, he reopened an old debate that quickly became highly polarized. Some people claimed that growing up in a fatherless home was the major cause of child poverty, delinquency, and school failure, while others denied that single motherhood had any harmful effects. And some objected even to discussing the topic for fear of stigmatizing single mothers and their children. Not talking about single motherhood is scarcely an option. More than half of the children born in 1994 will spend some or all of their childhood with only one parent, typically their mother. If current patterns hold, they will likely experience higher rates of poverty, school failure, and other problems as they grow up. The long-range consequences could have enormous implications. But what exactly are the consequences -- how large and concentrated among what groups? Do they depend on whether a single mother is widowed,...