Single Parent Homes and Inequality

The US has the highest share of single-parent homes of any country in the world. Children in these homes face greater obstacles

The US has the highest share of single parent households of any country in the world.

👩‍👦‍👦 Almost 1 in 4 children live in a single parent home. That’s 19 million kids under 18 years old. America is an extreme outlier here. The share of children in single parent homes is more than 3x the global average.

The New York Times columnist, David Leonhardt, summed up the challenge of addressing the inequalities of single parent families:

“I think that my half of the political spectrum — the left half — too often dismisses the importance of family structure. Partly out of a worthy desire to celebrate the heroism of single parents, progressives too often downplay family structure. Social science is usually messy, with correlation and causation difficult to separate. But the evidence, when viewed objectively, points strongly to the value of two-parent households.”

Explore the data

More single-parent homes than ever before

📈 The share of children living in single-parent homes is rising. The number of single mother homes has risen 19% over the last 30 years, from 7.6M to 9 million. Since 1965, the number of single parent homes has more than tripled.

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson in June 2022, America stands at risk of having millions more single parent homes. A tremendous amount of fantastic research and journalism has shown the terrible impact that the Court’s decision has had on a woman’s right to choose. The Supreme Court decision means that more children will come into the world in single-parent homes.The number of children in single-parent homes is rising, but we can expect it to rise even further in the coming decades.

🇺🇸 Georgia has 4 out of 5 counties with the highest share of single parent homes in America. 81% of the homes in Hancock, GA are single-parent homes. In Hancock, 4x fewer people go to college than the national average; 2x more people live in poverty than the national average; median household income is $31K, or less than half the national average; and 73% of the county is Black, or more than 6x the national average.

Bad luck and bad systems

Iesha Champs had the hardest year of her life in 2009. Already a mother of 3, she lost everything she owned in a house fire, was laid off from her job, and when she was 7 months pregnant with her fourth child, her husband died from cancer. She was a single mother of 4 in her late 20s. Iesha’s parents had been drug addicts and she herself had grown up in foster homes. She lived in 6 homes in her 4 years of high school, creating conditions that left her no choice but to drop out her senior year.

In 2010, Iesha decided to turn things around. She got her GED, went to community college in Houston where she received her Bachelor of Arts, and ultimately graduated from Thurgood Marshall School of Law where she received her Juris Doctor.

But millions of single parents are not able to turn their lives around like Iesha. The poverty rate for single-mother families in 2018 was 34%, nearly 5x more than the rate for two-parent households. 1 in 4 single mothers was unemployed for all of 2021.

Impact on children

The impact on society of single parent homes can be felt in the classroom, in prisons, in suicide statistics, and in the very fabric of communities. These impacts tend to fall disproportionately on Black families than on White families. 64% of Black children live in a single-parent home, compared with 24% of White children who live in a single-parent home.

Children in two-parent households have more opportunity

👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 👩‍👩‍👧‍👦 👨‍👨‍👧‍👦 Children who grow up with in two parent homes generally have better health and behavior in childhood, are more likely to complete high school and have higher incomes as adults.

Over the last 40 years, income has risen for married parent households by 30%, while income for single-parent households has risen by just 13%. As the costs of rent, childcare, and education have continued to rise at increasing rates, single-parent homes are much more likely to be left behind in every way. 💸

Is this coincidental? Are we really just pointing to the fact that so many more Black Americans tend to be born into single-parent homes (almost 3x more than for White Americans) and that Black families tend to have fewer opportunities in America?

The researchers found “even among families with the same income-to-needs ratios, those in married couple families experienced significantly less hardship.The marriage impacts were quite large, generally higher than the effects of education.

The same held true even for single-parents with another person contributing to the household income (i.e. a partner or family member).

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💒 America incentivizes marriage. Other than the tax and healthcare incentives of marriage, the US has continued to emphasize the importance of a male-female two person home. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which was the cornerstone piece of the Republican Party’s “Contract with America as well as Clinton’s key legislation to expand Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), stated:

“Marriage is the foundation of a successful society; Marriage is an essential institution of a successful society which promotes the interests of children. Promotion of responsible fatherhood and motherhood is integral to successful child rearing and the well-being of children.”

After Bill Clinton signed PRWORA into law, individuals receiving federal welfare dramatically declined.

The Path Forward

Researchers haven’t reached a definitive reason for why there are so many single parent homes in America. Increased premarital sex, births to unmarried couples and long-term increases in divorce and separation are believed to have contributed to the rise of single-parent families.

One of the biggest factors is the US incarceration rate. Incarcerated parents account for the cause of 15% of the children in single-parent homes.

  • 🫂 Stop breaking up families — The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Moreover, a Black child is 6x more likely as a White child to have an incarcerated parent. If we know the importance of family structure on opportunity in America, then we need to stop incarcerating people at such high rates, namely Black men, and ensure that families can more easily stay together.
  • 💰 Increase the Child Tax Credit (CTC) — The Biden administration dramatically expanded the CTC, but significant work remains to support families in need. The CTC, along with the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), is America’s most successful and essential poverty relief program because it focuses specifically on families with children. This program is incredibly helpful for boosting the income and opportunity of single-parent homes, thereby living children out of poverty. However, 35 million families no longer receive the monthly payments, the last of which were sent in December 2021.
  • 🪢 Create community support — Raj Chetty’s research found that the lack of Black fathers in households could be improved by Black fathers in communities. We don’t always need more dads in the home, but father figures in the community can help children grow. Black boys’ employment rates are higher and their school suspension rates are lower in “areas with higher black father presence.”
  • 🏛 Improve access to abortion and contraception — In a review of data before Roe and after, economists found that access to abortion reduced the odds of dropping out of school, being unmarried, and living in poverty, especially for Black women. The same holds true for children — access to abortion is associated with more children going to college and not growing up reliant on public assistance.

America is full of contradictions. Any individual can pick themselves up by their bootstraps, but families and family-values remain core to success. Anyone can make it anywhere, yet location is a huge determinant for opportunity. Single-moms are the backbone of society, yet the US does not give them the continued support they need. Inequality for single parents persists, but like Vice President Kamala Harris or former President Barack Obama, who both came from single-parent homes, their children can succeed.

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Jeremy Ney

Jeremy Ney

Google, MIT, Harvard, UPenn, Federal Reserve, now writing about inequality at AmericanInequality.substack.com