(WOMENSENEWS)–The data piling up show children raised by single parents fare worse, on average, than children raised by intact two-parent families.
Leaders of the fatherhood movement and conservatives in Congress point to that data as proof that welfare law and public policy should create incentives for couples to remain together, at least as long as they are raising children.
But a look behind the data suggests that this is an economic, rather than a sociological issue. It’s mostly about the money.
Children raised by single mothers are far more likely to be poor than those with two parents. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that one-third of the 10 million American families headed by women have incomes below the federal poverty threshold–a meager $13,738 for a family of three. The median income for households headed by a single mother is just $25,787, according to the 2000 Census. A single parent working full-time at the minimum wage would make just $10,700 a year.
When Congress debated welfare reform in 1996, the changes were based partly on data that showed only 9 percent of married-family households had incomes below the poverty line, while 46 percent of female-headed households lived below the poverty line.
"Our child poverty rate is an embarrassment. If you want to find out why kids are doing so poor, that’s the number one statistic–not the number of fathers," said Nancy Dowd, a law professor at the University of Florida who has written two books about parenting, "In Defense of Single Parent Families" and "Redefining Fatherhood."
Deborah Weinstein, director of the Family Income Division of the Children’s Defense Fund, agreed.
"I don’t think you will find that a very poor two-parent family is better than a well-off single-parent family," she said.
Kids in Single-Parent Homes Have Same Problems as Kids in Poverty
Indeed, many of the negative outcomes attributed to children in single-parent households mirror those of children living in poverty.
Studies show children raised by a single mom are more likely to engage in sexual activity earlier, to display violent behavior, abuse drugs and alcohol, commit suicide, have emotional and gender identification problems, perform poorly in school, drop out of school, commit a crime and go to jail.
Specifically, Congress found in 1996 that children from single-parent homes are four times more likely to be expelled or suspended from school. In addition, according to the welfare overhaul legislation, children of single-parent homes are three times more likely to fail and repeat a year in grade school.
Similar results are common among the 11.6 million American children who are living in poverty. Poor children are more likely than their economically better-off counterparts to live in more dangerous neighborhoods, attend less effective schools, eat less nutritious foods and witness more violent behavior.
For example, a 1997 report on child poverty published by the Children’s Defense Fund says that 22 percent of poor families live in substandard housing, compared with just 7 percent of non-poor families. Living in substandard housing means that the children are more likely to suffer from mold allergies, lead poisoning and rat infestations. They are more likely to live in violent neighborhoods and are much more likely to attend substandard schools.
William O’Hare, coordinator of the Kids Count project at the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, believes that poverty is only part of the explanation for the difficulties faced by children in single parent homes. He also believes kids in single-parent families fare worse because they have less access to an adult than do children with two parents.
"Having two adults there on a regular basis gives kids more attention and more time," he said in an interview.
At-Home Dad Does Minimal Parenting but Significantly Raises Income
The presence of a man available for parenting is of dubious benefit, according to Dowd, law professor, author and a single mother of two children.
"The assumption that because you have two adults, you have double the amount of parenting is not consistent with the pattern of nurturing and balancing work and family," she said. "If you look at parenting time patterns of single parents and two-parent families, you don’t see a lot of difference. It still tends to be the moms doing the bulk of the parenting. There is back-up parenting by dads, but not to a significant degree."
However, she noted, having a dad at home does two things: It generally raises the income and economic conditions of the family, and it removes the social stigma still carried by children of "broken homes."
The issue has taken center stage in Washington, where conservatives point to the growing body of data on single-parent families and see a need to once again reform welfare, this time to create incentives for keeping Dad in the family. The 1996 welfare overhaul comes up for five-year reauthorization next year, and encouraging marriage and at-home dads and discouraging single parenthood are high on the agenda.
Controversial child psychologist, Wade F. Horn, now assistant secretary for children and families in the U.S. Health and Human Services Administration, has made a career of advocating that parents should be married. In advance of his nomination, Horn pushed for changes in welfare laws that would promote marriage for aid recipients and provide incentives and disincentives.
In his Senate confirmation hearings, however, Horn backed off earlier statements advocating that needy married couples be given priority over needy but unmarried people when the government sets standards for providing benefits and programs.
"I’ve come to the conclusion that it was neither a viable or helpful recommendation," Horn said in a prepared statement in late May.
Iconic Nuclear Family an Artifact, Less Than 25 Percent of Homes
Efforts to revive the traditional nuclear family face an uphill battle.
Today, the stereotypical family composed of Mom, Dad and kids is just 24 percent of American households, down from 40 percent in 1970. The proportion of single-parent families, meanwhile, has grown from 11 percent in 1970 to 16 percent today, although the figures seem to have reached a plateau in recent years.
Looking at the data differently, the Casey Foundation reported in its Kids Count book what it considers encouraging news: The percentage of all children living in single-parent homes peaked in 1996 at 29.1 percent and fell to 27.8 percent in 2000.
Michael Connor, a psychology professor at California State University in Long Beach, teaches a course on fathering and says a male-female partnership brings something special to children. He believes in the importance of the public policy debate on families, marriage and what’s best for children.
"Clearly a male and a female in a committed relationship is by far the best and it seems to be more than just the two of them. There is an interactional process that goes beyond the two people. The two together offer something different than either can do by themselves," Connor said in an interview.
He added, however, that the key to success is a harmonious relationship.
"The best barometer for poor child development is marital disunion. If the parents are fighting all the time, they do need to go their separate ways. The stability of one parent is much better than the instability of two."
Children’s Defense Fund Says Healthy Two-Parent Family Is Ideal
The Children’s Defense Fund also believes the two-parent family is the ideal, Weinstein said. She would like to see public policy changes that help struggling families stay together rather than ones that force women into unwanted relationships or encourage them to stay in unhealthy or abusive marriages just to get a few extra dollars in aid each month.
"We should do away with any discouragement to two parents staying together," she said. "We agree that work needs to be done to help fathers be involved in their children’s lives–unless that poses a risk to anybody."
For example, Weinstein said, sometimes marriages break up because the father doesn’t have a good, steady source of income and can’t fulfill his role as breadwinner. The remedy, then, would be job training and economic opportunity.
Sometimes the issues are more cultural, such as a lack of societal support for the marriage union or a lack of training in how to communicate effectively within a relationship. Those are problems that can break up a marriage that could be saved with a little support, she said.
Policy leaders, she said, should be asking, "’If there are fragile families where Mom and Dad could stay together and play a role in their children’s lives, how can we strengthen that?’"
However, the government should not be in the business of forcing unhealthy families to stay together in its pursuit of a two-parent goal, she said.
"We are conservative in that we believe that decisions about whether parents stay together are intensely personal ones," Weinstein said. "Government can’t force people together and shouldn’t."
Free-lance writer Cindy Richards has been a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for her coverage of workplace issues.
For more information:
Children’s Defense Fund:
U.S. Census Bureau:
Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count data book: