Winter 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB2

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Single-Parent Families


Patricia Tanner Nelson
Family and Child Development Specialist
University of Delaware-Newark

Census Bureau projections indicate that at least one-half of all American children will spend part of their growing years in a single-parent family.1 This review highlights research on today's fastest growing family lifestyle. A key characteristic of single-parent families is the limited resources (especially time, energy, and money) available to them. Nearly 60% of today's mother-child families live in poverty. According to Norton and Glick:

By most objective measurements, the vast majority of mother-headed families hold a disadvantageous position in society relative to other family groups. They are characterized by a high rate of poverty, relatively low education, and a high rate of mobility. As a group, they have little equity or stature in American society and constitute a group with unusually pressing social and economic needs.2

After divorce, income tends to drop sharply for mothers, to about one-third that of married-couple families. Child support is an unreliable source of income, as only about one-half of the fathers ordered to pay support actually pay in full.3 Krein found children in single-parent families twice as likely to drop out of high school as children living full time in two-parent families.4 Children in single-parent homes are also more likely to have their own marriages end in separation or divorce,5 and are at higher risk for unmarried parenthood.6 Working mothers, according to Burden's research, receive lower salaries, work longer hours at combined job and home responsibilities, and experience greater job-family role strain and lower levels of physical and emotional well-being than male parents. Burden speaks forcefully about policy implications:

Since almost half of the workforce is now women, government policy needs to be developed which will provide incentives to lessen the inequity currently experienced by women employees .... The primary dilemma for government policy makers is to find ways to support the needs of employed women, while at the same time supporting the continued function of homemaking and childrearing in American families. To continue simply to rely on women to do both does not seem to be a realistic long-term policy.7

Single-parent families, particularly those generated by divorce, are expected to have a continuing presence in our society. Extension educators can help people of all ages understand the likely social and economic consequences of divorce. In addition, preventive family life education and skills in communication and conflict management would appear to be basic requirements for members of today's families.


  1. Arthur J. Norton and Paul C. Glick, "One-Parent Families: A Social and Economic Profile," Family Relations, XXXVI (January 1986), 9-18.
  2. Ibid., p. 16.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Sheila F. Krein, "Growing Up in a Single-Parent Family: The Effect of Education and Earnings on Young Men," Family Relations, XXXVI (January 1986), 161-68.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Daniel P. Mueller and Philip W. Cooper, "Children in Single-Parent Families: How They Fare as Young Adults," Family Relations, XXXVI (January 1986), 169-76.
  7. Diane S. Burden, "Single Parents and the Work Setting: The Impact of Multiple Job and Homelife Responsibilities," Family Relations, XXXVI (January 1986), 42.