Further, because of high divorce rates, cohabitation and other factors, a large percentage of children have siblings from different fathers. In 2011 the first U.S. study examining the prevalence of multiple partner fertility found that 28% of women in the U.S. with at least two children have those children by more than one man. That includes an incredible 59% of black women with multiple children. The study looked at “relationship churning” within families over a 27-year span and found that the rise in rotation among fathers occurred across educational and income levels. Also noted in the research were the probable stresses occurring in such families.
Split families can occur outside of marriage, from divorce, or even within a marriage, as well as within the growing trend toward cohabitation. With an increasing share of the population opting for cohabitation instead of marriage, many of the children born in the U.S. are born to cohabitating parents. According to the Center for Family and Demographic Research, nearly 20% of the U.S. births today are to cohabitating parents. That’s about half of the total share of births born to unwed parents. They also estimate that 40% of children will spend some time in a cohabitating household by age 16.
The prevalence and fluctuations of cohabitation makes it difficult to accurately determine the makeup of households, but the Census Bureau reports that in 2014 there were about 12 million single parent families in the U.S., accounting for around 20 million children. In 2014, 83% these single-parent families were headed by women.
In previous articles I showed statistics that indicated that average incomes are significantly lower for adults within marriage than without. And when those married adults are parents they, on average, earn still more.
Despite the image that is sometimes portrayed in the media of the successful single mother earning a six-figure income and her children wanting for nothing, such families are outliers, not the norms.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, in 2012, in female-headed households without a spouse present, the poverty rate was about 47% (47.2%). This compares to about 11% (11.1%) for married-couple families and 22% for single-father households. Interestingly, the poverty rate of different-sex cohabitating households is nearly as high as for single-mother households, at 46%. Overall, the rate of poverty in the U.S. generally rose during the period of 2000 to 2012. For single-mother households the rate rose from 39.7% to 47.2% during the decade, much higher than the 8.0% to 11.1% increase for married couples. Overall, the poverty rate for children under the age of 18 rose from 16.2% in 2000 to 19.9% in 2012.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011 nearly half (46.3%) of all households headed by a woman participated in a major government-provided means-tested programs such as SSI, Medicaid, Housing assistance or food stamps, while just 12.3% of married-couple families participated in such programs.
The rise in poverty since 2000 has coincided with the rise in the percentage of children born outside of marriage, rising from 33% to about 41%. In the chart below I compare the trend of the poverty rate for female-headed households with the general increase in the percentage of children born to unmarried women. The correlation coefficient of these two series' is .87, showing an extremely high correlation between the two factors. As usual, correlation does not prove causation, but I believe the trend of falling marriage rates, a higher percentage of children born outside of marriage, higher poverty rates, especially for children and single-headed households, and lower rates of working men are all tied together.
Besides the financial vulnerability that children born outside of marriage or living within single-mother households suffer, there are a multitude of negative outcomes, from emotional to social to academic.
An article in the Journal of Marriage and Family, “Family Structure Pathways and Academic Disadvantage among Adolescents in Stepfamilies”, middle and high-school students living with only one biological parent, parents who have been divorced or separated, or born outside of marriage have lower grade point averages than those children who have always lived with both parents. His research also found that children living with their biological father tested at a significantly higher educational level than those living with a nonbiological father. However, he also found that there was a higher likelihood of a student getting A’s if there was father involvement in education, whether a biological father, a stepfather, or single-father household.
A 2012 article by Edward Kruk in Psychology Today reported that 71% of high school dropouts are fatherless. Fatherless children also have more trouble academically, scoring worse on academic skills tests. They are also more likely to be truant, and are less likely to attain academic and professional qualifications in adulthood.
A 2006 study by Heather Turner published in Social Science & Medicine found that children age 10 to 17 living with two biological parents were significantly less likely to experience sexual assault, child maltreatment and other types of “major” violence, and were less likely to witness violence in their families compared to peers living in single-parent families and stepfamilies.
It’s also been well-established that children in fatherless homes are more likely to be sexually active. Living in a single-mother household raises the likelihood of teen pregnancy, marrying with less than a high school degree and forming a marriage where both partners have less than a high school degree. This is significant because lack of educational achievement and teenage marriage significantly increases the chance for divorce, with related child impact. Other studies have shown that, compared to children of married mothers, children born to single mothers have higher levels of aggressive behavior, much higher drug and alcohol usage and abuse, have significantly higher suicide rates and significantly more behavioral problems than children living with both biological parents.
It seems that society is attempting to replace the ugliness of divorce and other marriage difficulties and complications with a single-parent and cohabitation society. But the research clearly shows that essentially, there is no substitution for marriage, especially when marriage stays intact. Marriage seems to be broken in its current form and is, understandably, not appealing to a large segment of the population, particularly men. But even though divorce rates are high, breakups in cohabitation are much higher. And even though there are financial difficulties and strains within marriage, generally, they are higher outside of it. Poverty rates are certainly much, much higher outside of marriage than within. For children, regardless of race or family income, those fortunate to live with married parents who stay married, on average, do the best in educational achievement, with the lowest amounts of family violence, social and psychological stress.
Author and marital expert John Gottman warns of the problems that the instability of cohabitating parents often brings to children. He says although it’s not entirely clear why, the benefits of marriage, in health, wealth and longevity, are not conferred to those who cohabitate. Unfortunately, the high probability of failure in marriage is only increased within cohabitation, where the likelihood of separation is very high. Research by Osborne and McLanahan (Journal of Marriage and Family, 2007) found that living in a single-mother household is equivalent to an average of 5.25 partnership transitions. As hard as these changes are on a mother, they are mostly likely much harder on a child.
It is difficult to quantify the true economic impact to society from the divorce generation, the subsequent decline of marriage and the rise of cohabitation and single-parenthood. On average, the children who grow up in single-parent or cohabitating households, or go through divorce, do worse in school, have more physical and emotional problems and have a more economically vulnerable childhood. The uncertainty is how that translates into a socially and economically productive citizen. We do know that children with these various childhood difficulties often have a more difficult time in adulthood. For example, childhood poverty is associated with lower adult earnings, higher adult crime and poor health. With declining marriage rates, high divorce rates, record high levels of children born out of wedlock and a high proportion of children living in single-mother or cohabitating households, we would expect high poverty rates among children to continue.
Naturally we are dealing with generalizations. There are many happy and successful children in single-parent and cohabitating households and millions of abused, struggling and unhappy kids within married families. But the facts and statistics paint a future picture of a society where a large segment of the population coming from broken, empty and unstable homes will not be the economic providers that the generation of parents and grandparents before them were. Although a subset of these children will succeed, on the whole, we should not expect these children to provide the economic growth provided by children raised in more stable households in past generations.