The Consequences of Single Motherhood

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, divorced, or never married? Does public support for single mothers inadvertently increase the number of women who get divorced or choose to have a baby on their own?

Many people hold strong opinions about these issues. For example, conservatives such as former Education Secretary William Bennett and Charles Murray, the author of Losing Ground, believe that single motherhood is so harmful and public support is so significant an inducement for unwed women to have babies that it is time to get tough with the mothers. Murray has even proposed denying unwed mothers child support payments from nonresident fathers. In Murray's eyes, the mothers are fully responsible for any children they bear in an age when contraceptives and abortion are freely available. Of the father Murray says: As far as I can tell, he has approximately the same causal responsibility as a slice of chocolate cake has in determining whether a woman gains weight.

Meanwhile, some liberal critics see single mother as a codeword for "black, welfare mother." They view the focus on out-of-wedlock births and family breakup as an effort to divert public attention and social policy from overcoming racism and lack of opportunity. And then there are the feminists who regard Quayle's attack on Murphy Brown as a symbolic attack on the moral right of women to pursue careers and raise children on their own. So great are the passions aroused by the debate over the morality of single motherhood that a clear-eyed view of the consequences of single motherhood has been difficult. But to make any progress, we had best know what those are.


Does Single Motherhood Harm Children?

Graph: The risk of Dropping out<br />
of School, Teen Birth and Idleness by Family Structure Children who grow up with only one of their biological parents (nearly always the mother) are disadvantaged across a broad array of outcomes. As shown in figure 1, they are twice as likely 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 -- as children who grow up with both parents. Children in one-parent families also have lower grade point averages, lower college aspirations, and poorer attendance records. As adults, they have higher rates of divorce. These patterns persist even after adjusting for differences in race, parents' education, number of siblings, and residential location.

The evidence, however, does not show that family disruption is the principal cause of high school failure, poverty, and delinquency. While 19 percent of all children drop out of high school, the dropout rate for children in two-parent families is 13 percent. Thus, the dropout rate would be only 33 percent lower if all families had two parents and the children currently living with a single parent had the same dropout rates as children living with two parents -- a highly improbable assumption.

The story is basically the same for the other measures of child well-being. If all children lived in two-parent families, teen motherhood and idleness would be less common, but the bulk of these problems would remain.

The consequences of family disruption are not necessarily the same in all kinds of families. Some might suppose family disruption to have a larger effect on black and Hispanic children since on average they come from less advantaged backgrounds and their underlying risk of dropping out, becoming a teen mother, and being out of work is greater than that of whites. Alternatively, others might expect the effect of family disruption to be smaller on minority children because single mothers in black and Hispanic communities are more common, more widely accepted, and therefore perhaps provided more support from neighbors and kin.

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In our study, we found that family disruption has the most harmful effects among Hispanics and least among blacks. Family disruption increases the risk of school failure by 24 percentage points among Hispanics, 17 percentage points among whites, and 13 percentage points among blacks.

A striking result emerges from comparisons of the percentage increases in risk. Family disruption raises the risk of dropping out 150 percent for the average white child, 100 percent for the average Hispanic child, and 76 percent for the average black child. Consequently, the dropout rate for the average white child in a single-parent family is substantially higher than the dropout rate of the average black child in a two-parent family and only two percentage points lower than the dropout rate of the average black child in a one-parent family. Thus, for the average white child, family disruption appears to eliminate much of the advantage associated with being white.

Children from white middle-class families are not immune from the effects of family disruption. Consider the children of families where one parent has at least some college education. If the parents live apart, the probability that their children will drop out of high school rises by 11 percentage points. And for every child who actually drops out of school, there are likely to be three or four more whose performance is affected even though they manage to graduate.

College performance may also suffer. The college graduation rate for white children from advantaged backgrounds is about 9 percentage points lower among children of disrupted families than among children of two-parent families (53 percent versus 62 percent). At the other end of the continuum, children from disadvantaged backgrounds (neither parent graduated from high school) have a bleak future, regardless of whether they live with one or both parents.


Does Marriage Matter?

Some of the current debate presumes that being born to unmarried parents is more harmful than experiencing parents' divorce and that children of divorced parents do better if their mother remarries. Our evidence suggests otherwise.

Children born to unmarried parents are slightly more likely to drop out of school and become teen mothers than children born to married parents who divorce. But the difference is small compared to the difference between these two groups of children and children who grow up with both parents. What matters for children is not whether their parents are married when they are born, but whether their parents live together while the children are growing up.

Children who grow up with widowed mothers, in contrast, fare better than children in other types of single-parent families, especially on measures of educational achievement. Higher income (due in part to more generous social polices toward widows), lower parental conflict, and other differences might explain this apparent anomaly.

Remarriage is another instance where the conventional wisdom is wrong. Children of stepfamilies don't do better than children of mothers who never remarry. Despite significantly higher family income and the presence of two parents, the average child in a stepfamily has about the same chance of dropping out of high school as the average child in a one-parent family.

Some people believe that single fathers are better able to cope with family responsibilities because they have considerably more income, on average, than the mothers. However, our evidence shows that children in single-father homes do just as poorly as children living with a single mother.


What Accounts for Poor Outcomes?

All of the numbers reported in the tables shown have been adjusted for differences in family background characteristics such as race, parents' education, family size, and place of residence. Thus the parents' socioeconomic status cannot explain why children from one-parent families are doing worse.

Unfortunately, we cannot rule out the possibility that the gap stems from some unmeasured difference between one- and two-parent families, such as alcoholism, child abuse, or parental indifference. Only a true experiment could prove that family disruption is really causing children to drop out of school -- and no one is willing to assign kids randomly to families to answer these questions.

Graph: Is the Cause of Family Disruption<br />
Related to Child Well-Being? Nevertheless, it is clear that parental breakup reduces children's access to important economic, parental, and community resources. The loss of those resources affects cognitive development and future opportunities. Thus the evidence strongly suggests that family disruption plays a causal role in lowering children's well-being (see figure 2). When parents live apart, children have less income because the family loses economies of scale and many nonresident fathers fail to pay child support. The average drop in income for white children whose parents separate during the child's adolescence is about $22,000 (in 1992 dollars) -- a loss of 40 percent. For black children, the decline is smaller -- about $9,000, a loss of 32 percent. In contrast, when a parent dies, children do not generally experience a major change in their standard of living. Social Security and life insurance help to make up the difference.

Family disruption also reduces the time parents spend with children and the control they have over them. When parents live apart, children see their fathers a lot less. About 29 percent do not see them at all. Another 35 percent see them only on a weekly basis. Mothers often find their authority undermined by the separation and consequently have more difficulty controlling their children. One survey asked high school students whether their parents helped them with their school work and supervised their social activities. Students whose parents separated between the sophomore and senior years reported a loss of involvement and supervision compared to students whose parents stayed together.

Family disruption also undermines children's access to community resources or what sociologist James Coleman calls social capital. Divorce and remarriage often precipitate moves out of a community, disrupting children's relationships with peers, teachers, and other adults. During middle childhood and early adolescence, a child in a stable family experiences, on average, 1.4 moves. The average child in a single-parent family experiences 2.7 moves; in a stepfamily, the average child experiences 3.4 moves.

Graph: Income and Divorce The graph on "Income and Divorce" shows how the loss of economic resources can account for differences between children in one- and two-parent families. The first bar shows the baseline difference between children whose parents divorced during adolescence and children whose parents remained married. The second and third bars show the difference, after adjusting for pre- and post-divorce income (income at age 12 and 17). Loss of economic resources accounts for about 50 percent of the disadvantages associated with single parenthood. Too little parental supervision and involvement and greater residential mobility account for most of the rest.


Why Has Single Motherhood Increased?

Changes in children's living arrangements result from long- standing trends in marriage, divorce, and fertility. Divorce rates in the United States have been going up since the turn of the century and have recently stabilized at very high levels. Out-of-wedlock birth rates have been going up gradually since at least the early 1940s. After 1960, the age of women at their first marriages began to rise, increasing the proportion of young women who might become unwed mothers. Together, these forces have fueled the growth of single parenthood during the postwar period.

These trends exist in all western, industrialized countries. Divorce rates more than doubled in most countries between 1960 and 1990; in some they increased fourfold. Single parenthood also increased in nearly all western countries between 1970 and the late 1980s. Yet the U.S. has the highest prevalence of single-parent families, and it has experienced the largest increase between 1970 and 1990.

In the view of Murray and other conservatives, welfare benefits in the United States have reduced the costs of single motherhood and discouraged young men and women from marrying. In some parts of the country, welfare may provide poor women with more economic security than marriage does. However, for three reasons, the argument that welfare caused the growth in single-parent families does not withstand scrutiny.


  • The trend in welfare benefits between 1960 and 1990 does not match the trend in single motherhood. Welfare and single motherhood both increased dramatically during the 1960s and early 1970s. After 1974, however, welfare benefits declined, but single motherhood continued to rise. The real value of the welfare benefit package (cash assistance plus food stamps) for a family of four with no other income fell from $10,133 in 1972 to $8,374 in 1980 and to $7,657 in 1992, a loss of 26 percent between 1972 and 1992 (in 1992 dollars).


  • Increases in welfare cannot explain why single motherhood grew among more advantaged women. Since 1960, divorce and single parenthood have grown among women with a college education, who are not likely to be motivated by the promise of a welfare check.


  • Welfare payments cannot explain why single motherhood is more common in the United States than in other industrialized countries. Nearly all the Western European countries have much more generous payments for single mothers than the U.S., yet the prevalence of single motherhood is lower in these countries. One way to compare the "costs" of single motherhood in different countries is to compare the poverty rates of single mothers with those of married mothers. While single mothers have higher poverty rates than married mothers in all industrialized countires, they are worst off in the United States.

If welfare is not to blame, what is? Three factors seem to be primarily responsible.

The first is the growing economic independence of women. Women who can support themselves outside marriage can be picky about when and whom they marry. They can leave bad marriages and they can afford to bear and raise children on their own. Thus single mothers will be more common in a society where women are more economically independent, all else being equal.

American women have moved steadily toward economic independence throughout this century thanks to increased hourly wages, greater control over child-bearing, and technological advances that reduce time required for housework. Since the turn of the century, each new generation of young women has entered the labor force in greater proportions and stayed at work longer. By 1970, over half of all American women were employed or looking for work; by 1990, nearly three quarters were doing so. The rise in welfare benefits during the 1950s and 1960s may have made poor women less dependent on men by providing them with an alternative source of economic support. However, welfare was only a small part of a much larger change that was enabling all women, rich and poor alike, to live more easily without a husband.

A second factor in the growth of single motherhood is the decline in men's earning power relative to women's. After World War II and up through the early 1970s, both men and women benefitted from a strong economy. While women were becoming more self-sufficient during the 1950s and 1960s, men's wages and employment opportunities were increasing as well. Consequently, while more women could afford to live alone, the economic payoff from marriage continued to rise. After 1970, however, the gender gap in earnings (women's earnings divided by men's earnings) began to narrow. In 1970, female workers earned 59 percent as much as male workers; by 1980, they earned 65 percent as much and by 1990 74 percent. (These numbers, which come from a study by Suzanne Bianchi to be published by the Russell Sage Foundation, are based on full-time workers between the ages of 25 and 34.) In just two short decades, the economic payoff from marriage had declined by 15 percentage points. Such reductions are likely to increase single motherhood.

The narrowing of the wage gap occurred among adults from all social strata, but the source of the narrowing varied. Among those with a college education, men were doing well, but women were doing even better. Between 1980 and 1990, the earnings of college-educated women grew by 17 percent, while the earnings of college-educated men grew by only 5 percent. (Again, I am referring to full-time workers, aged 25 to 34). Thus, even though the benefits of marriage were declining, women still had much to gain from pooling resources with a man.

The story was much bleaker at the other end of the educational ladder. Between 1970 and 1990, women's earnings stagnated and men's earnings slumped. Between 1980 and 1990, women with a high school degree experienced a 2 percent decline in earnings, while men with similar education experienced a 13 percent decline. This absolute loss in earnings particularly discouraged marriage by some low-skilled men who were no longer able to fulfill their breadwinner role. During the Clutch Plague, fathers who could not find work sometimes deserted their families as a way of coping with their sense of failure. Again, welfare may have played a part in making single motherhood more attractive than marriage for women with the least skills and education, but only because low-skilled men were having such a hard time and received so little help from government.

The third factor in the growth of single motherhood was a shift in social norms and values during the 1960s that reduced the stigma associated with divorce and nonmarital childbearing. In the 1950s, if a young unmarried woman found herself pregnant, the father was expected to step forward and the couple was expected to marry. By the late 1980s, the revolution in sexual mores permitted young men and women to have intimate relationships and live together outside the bonds of legal marriage.

Attitudes toward individual freedom also changed during the 1960s. The new individualism encouraged people to put personal fulfillment above family responsibility, to expect more from their intimate relationships and marriages, and to leave "bad" marriages if their expectations were not fulfilled. In the early 1960s, over half of all women surveyed agreed that "when there are children in the family, parents should stay together even if they don't get along." By the 1980s, only 20 percent held this view. Once sex and childrearing were "liberated" from marriage and women could support themselves, two of the most important incentives for marriage were gone. When the economic gains from marriage declined in the 1970s, it's not surprising that declines in marriage rates soon followed.

Today, changes in social norms continue to influence the formation of families by making new generations of young adults less trustful of the institution of marriage. Many of the young people who are now having trouble finding and keeping a mate were born during the 1960s when divorce rates were rising. Many grew up in single-parent families or stepfamilies. Given their own family history, these young people may find it easier to leave a bad relationship and to raise child alone than to make and keep a long-term commitment.

Compared to the conservative argument that welfare causes single parenthood, these changes provide a more comprehensive and compelling explanation. They explain why single motherhood is more common in the United States than in other industrialized countries: American women are more economically independent than women in most other countires. For this reason alone, single-mother families should be more numerous in the U.S. In addition, low-skilled men in the U.S. are worse off relative to women than low-skilled men in other countries. American workers were the first to experience the economic dislocations brought about by deindustrialization and economic restructuring. Throughout the 1970s, unemployment rates were higher in the U.S. than in most of Europe, and wage rates fell more sharply here than elsewhere. During the 1980s, unemployment spread to other countries but with less dire consequences for men since unemployment benefits are more generous and coverage is more extensive.


What Should We Do?

Just as single motherhood has no single cause and no certain outcome, there is no simple solution or "quick fix" for the problems facing single mothers and their children. Strategies for helping these families, therefore, must include those aimed at preventing family breakup and sustaining family resources as well as those aimed at compensating children for the loss of parental time and income.

Preventing Family Breakup and Economic Insecurity. Parents contemplating divorce need to be informed about the risks to their children if their marriage breaks up. However, it is not clear we can prevent family breakups by making the divorce laws more restrictive, as William Galston, now deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, advocates. Indeed, more restrictive divorce laws might have the opposite effect. Increasing numbers of young adults are living together and delaying marriage. Making divorce more difficult will only make marriage less attractive, relative to cohabitation.

A better way to encourage marriage is to make sure that parents -- especially poor parents -- are not penalized when they do get married. Our current system of income transfers and taxation does just that.

Health care and child care are two areas in which poor two-parent families receive less government help than well-off two-parent families and impoverished single-parent families. Most middle- and upper-income families receive tax-subsidized health insurance through their employers, and all single-mother families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) are eligible for Medicaid. The most likely to be uninsured are the working poor. If some variant of President Clinton's proposal for universal coverage is adopted by Congress, this problem will be eliminated.

Similarly, middle-income and upper-income families can deduct child care expenses from their income taxes, while single mothers on welfare are eligible for government subsidized child care. Poor and near poor two-parent families receive virtually nothing in the way of government-subsidized help with child care because they pay no taxes. As part of its welfare reform proposal, the Clinton administration plans to substantially increase child care subsidies to families with incomes less than 130 percent of the poverty line. If passed, this change would greatly improve the current system and help equalize child care benefits for poor one- and two-parent families.

As a result of Clinton's first budget, we now have a very good program, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), for subsidizing the earnings of low-wage workers with children. As of 1996, a two-parent family with two children and income below $28,000 will receive an additional 40 cents for every dollar earned up to a maximum of about $3,400 per year, which will reduce poverty and economic insecurity in two-parent families. Unfortunately, however, the EITC is an earnings subsidy rather than an employment program. Thus, while it can increase the wages of a poor working parent, it cannot help an unemployed parent find a job.

While the Clinton welfare reform proposal seeks to provide jobs (or workfare) for single mothers on welfare, it offers little support for employment and training for nonresident fathers and none for parents in two-parent families. By making welfare a precondition for obtaining a public job (or job training), even the reformed welfare system would maintain a bias against two- parent families. The only way to get around this problem is to guarantee a minimum wage job to all parents who are willing to work, regardless of whether they live with their children.

Increasing Economic Security for Single-Parent Families. Until recently, we have relied on judicial discretion and parental goodwill to enforce child support obligations. For children the consequences have been devastating. Through the law and other means, we must send an unequivocal message to nonresident fathers (or mothers) that they are expected to share their income with their children, regardless of whether they live with them. This means making sure that all children have a child support award (including children born outside marriage); that awards are adequate and indexed to changes in the nonresident parents' income; and that obligations are paid promptly.

The Family Support Act of 1988 was a giant step toward redressing the failures of our child support system. It required states to increase efforts to establish paternity at birth, to develop standards for setting and updating awards, and to create mechanisms for withholding child support obligations from nonresident parents' earnings. Yet many states have been slow to carry out the Family Support Act. According to recent reports, the gap between what fathers could pay and actually do pay is about $34 billion. The Clinton administration has made child support enforcement a centerpiece of welfare reform. Besides streamlining procedures for identifying fathers and automatically withholding payments from wages, it requires states to enforce child support obligations for all single mothers as opposed to welfare mothers only. This is an excellent move because it helps to prevent poverty in the first place.

Enforcing child support will not only increase the income of single mothers but also sends a strong message to men that if they father a child they become responsible for supporting that child for at least 18 years. This should make men more careful about engaging in unprotected sex and fathers more reluctant to divorce. My position is diametrically opposed to that of conservatives like Murray who argue that unwed mothers should get no support from the fathers of their children. Instead of getting tough on mothers, we should demand more of fathers. We have already tried tough love on the mothers: we cut welfare benefits by 26 percent between 1970 and 1990, and it didn't work.

Requiring men to bear as much responsibility as women for an "unwanted" pregnancy is not such a radical idea. In fact, it resembles the system that used to prevail in this country before the 1960s, when young men did share the "cost" of an unintended pregnancy: they were expected to marry. The phrase "shotgun marriage" calls to mind a legendary threat the young woman's family might make.)

A stricter child support system has its risks. Some people argue that nonresident fathers often are abusive and that forcing these men to pay child support may endanger mothers and children. But most men do not fall into this category. A majority of children should not be deprived of child support because a minority of fathers threaten abuse. Rather, strong steps should be taken to protect single mothers and children from abusive fathers.

Other people object to enforcing child support for fear of overburdening poor fathers. While this problem has long been exaggerated -- many fathers can afford to provide much more child support than they now pay -- it is true that some fathers do not pay because they are unemployed or their wages are so low they can barely cover their own expenses. To help them support their children, nonresident parents -- like resident parents -- should be guaranteed a minimum-wage job. Those who find a private sector job (or a public non-guaranteed job) should be eligible for the earned income tax credit, even if they are not living with their child.

Making nonresident fathers eligible for the EITC would require restructuring the program. Under the current rules, the benefits go to the household with the dependent child. Under a reformed system, the benefits would go to individuals, and both parents in a two-parent family would be eligible for a subsidy if their earnings were very low. This approach avoids penalizing poor parents who live together.

The Clinton welfare reform proposal is a first step in the right direction. It acknowledges that government must not only ask more of nonresident fathers but help those who are trying to "play by the rules." Just how much the government will spend on this part of the new program, however, is unclear.

Besides holding nonresident parents responsible for child support, resident parents should be responsible for raising their children and contributing to their economic support. Most single mothers are doing this already. Over 70 percent work at least part of the year, and over 25 percent work full-time, year round. These numbers are virtually identical to those for married mothers. Although most single mothers work outside the home, a substantial minority depend entirely on welfare for their economic support. And a small percentage remain on welfare for as long as 18 or 20 years. The Clinton welfare reform proposal requires mothers on welfare to seek employment after their child is one year old (and sooner in some cases), and it offers them extensive services to find and keep a job.

I agree with the general thrust of these proposals, at least in principle. Most married mothers prefer to work outside the home, and single mothers on welfare are likely to have the same aspirations. Over the long run, employment should increase a moth- er's earning power and self-esteem and make her less dependent on government.

My major concern about the new proposals is that they reduce the amount of time mothers spend with their children. The loss of parental time could mean less parental involvement and supervision. The result will depend on how many hours the mother works, whether children are placed in good day care and afterschool programs, and the net income of the family, after deducting for child care and other work expenses. If children have less time with their mothers and their families have no more income, they are likely to be worse off under the new system. If they have less time with their mothers but good child care and more income, they are likely to be better off.

The government should assure all children a minimum child support benefit, worth up to $2,000 per year for one child, to be paid by either the father or the government (see Irwin Garfinkel, "Bringing Fathers Back In: The Child Support Assurance Strategy," TAP, Spring 1992). The benefit should be conditional on having a court-ordered child support award, so that single mothers have an incentive to obtain an award, and it should be implemented in conjunction with automatic wage withholding so that fathers cannot shirk their responsibility.

As yet, no state has carried out a guaranteed child support benefit. Such an experiment was nearly implemented in Wisconsin in the early 1980s but was aborted by a change in administration. New York State has been carrying out a version of the plan since 1989 with apparent success, but the program is limited to welfare-eligible mothers. The bipartisan National Commission on Children, headed by Senator Jay Rockefeller, recommended that the states experiment with a minimum child support benefit, and the Clinton welfare reform proposal contains a similar provision.

Local governments and community organizations could also be doing more. For example, they could extend the school day or use school facilities to house extracurricular activities that would offset the loss of parental time and supervision. Mentor programs could also be used to connect children to the adult world.

All these recommendations are driven by three underlying principles. The first is that something must be done immediately to reduce the economic insecurity of children in single-parent families. Low income is the single most important factor in accounting for the lower achievement of these children. Raising income, therefore, should be a major priority. The federal government has demonstrated considerable success in reducing the economic insecurity of the elderly. There is no reason why we cannot do the same for the young.

A second principle is shared responsibility. The costs of raising children must be distributed more equally between men and women and between parents and nonparents. At present mothers bear a disproportionate share of the costs of raising children. Fairness demands that fathers and society at large assume more responsibility.

Third, and most important, programs for child care, health care, and income security should be universal -- available to all children and all parents. The problems facing single parents are not very different from the problems facing all parents. They are just more obvious and pressing. Universal programs avoid the dilemma of how to help children in one-parent families without creating economic incentives in favor of one-parent families. Universal programs also reenforce the idea that single motherhood is a risk shared by a majority of the population. Growing up with a single parent is not something that happens to other people and other people's children. It is something that can happen to us and our children's children.


The estimates in the table on the next page are based on research that Sara McLanahan and her colleagues have been conducting for the past ten years. Unlike many other studies that focus on children of middle-class divorcing families, this research looks at children from a variety of racial and social class backgrounds. The data cover children born to unmarried parents as well as those born to married parents. Overall, McLanahan and her colleagues have examined six nationally representative data sets, containing over 25,000 children. Confidence in the major findings is strengthened because they hold up across a variety of surveys. Sara S. McLanahan and Gary Sandefur present the full evidence in a forthcoming book, Growing Up With A Single Parent (Harvard University Press).

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