Insights on Single Parenthood

by Jay McCall At this year’s Philanthropy Roundtable Annual Conference, I attended the session, “Strategies for Reducing the Dangers of Single Parenthood,” and was blown away by the statistics and information shared. It was one of those sessions where I woke up thinking about it the next day. The session’s two speakers, Kay Hymowitz and Isabel Sawhill, are both accomplished scholars and experts in child and family issues.

Kay is a William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal. Isabel is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and author of Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage.

I wanted to capture some of the most impactful trends and statistics that Kay and Isabel shared during this presentation, in addition to highlighting a few excerpts of articles they recently have written on this topic.

Key Statistics

The following statistics stood out to me and set the stage for the discussion:

  • Children raised in a single-parent household are almost five times more likely to live in poverty.
  • While teen pregnancy rates have decreased, single mother births are now highest among women in their 20’s.
  • 40% of all children are born outside of marriage (50% among mothers under the age of 30).
  • 60% of unwed births are reported as unplanned.

Drifting into Parenthood

Isabel’s perspective is that instead of intentionally choosing parenthood, many young mothers and fathers are “drifting” into parenthood. Not surprisingly, this results in less successful parenting and child outcomes, as well as an unstable family structure. In her recent article in the New York Times, she wrote:

Marriage is disappearing. More than 40 percent of new mothers are unmarried. Many young adults drift into parenthood unintentionally. They may be cohabiting at the time of their child’s birth, but about half of these couples will have split up by the time their child is 5 years old. College-educated young adults are still marrying before having children and planning their families more intentionally. The rest of America, about two-thirds of the population, is not.

The drifters need better educational and job opportunities, but unless we come to grips with what is happening to marriage and parenting, progress will be limited. For every child lifted out of poverty by a social program, another one is entering poverty as a result of the continued breakdown of the American family. If we could turn back the marriage clock to 1970, before the sharp rise in divorce and single parenthood began, the child poverty rate would be 20 percent lower than it is now. Even some of our biggest social programs, like food stamps, do not reduce child poverty as much as unmarried parenthood has increased it.

These rates are staggering, but Isabel also acknowledges that this discussion is not just about marriage. As she states, it’s “the quality of parenting that really matters, not just the structure of the family.” But the issue is hard to separate, because a two-parent family structure certainly allows for more resources when it comes to quality, engaged parenting. Many single parents simply have so many competing responsibilities that time dedicated to quality parenting suffers.

Single Parenthood and Poverty

Once children are born to single mothers, they face many challenges. In her recent Daily Signal article, Kay shines a light on the relationship between single parenthood and poverty. She says that society just recently has become more comfortable discussing the “full impact of unwed birth.”

In 2014, 40.6 percent of all children in the United States were born to unmarried mothers. That includes close to 72 percent of black children, 53 percent of Hispanic children, and 29 percent of white children.

After a long period of denial, social scientists began to reach a consensus in the late 1990s that the children of single mothers were doing worse than the children of married mothers on just about every measure they studied: school achievement, poverty, emotional well-being, drug use, delinquency, and graduation rates.

…Experts have also begun to understand that unwed childbearing is deeply entwined with poverty…. Single-parent families are about five times more likely to be poor as married-couple families. Worse, their children are more likely to remain poor.

Potential Solutions

By these accounts, it appears that marriage could be a beneficial tool in reducing child poverty. The difficult question that no one can seem to answer is how to effectively restore it as a predominant social institution. As Isabel states, everything that has been tried, “ from marriage-education programs to changes in the way marriage is treated in tax and benefit programs — has had little or no effect” on marriage rates.

Isabel shares her opinion of one solution to these unplanned or “drifting” parenthood situations. She advocates for the accessibility and affordability of long-acting reversible contraceptives (or LARCs, which include implants and IUDs), which she says would help make parenthood an active choice, rather than a passive default. She articulates the following:

If these accidental births could be avoided, these 20-somethings might reach an age at which stable relationships are finally possible, unencumbered by a child from a previous relationship. And whether a woman finds a partner or not, by waiting she would be better prepared to raise a child by herself.

She also puts the burden on the “drifters” themselves, saying that we need a “new ethic of responsible parenthood.”  For this, she offers that “softer nudges toward more responsible behavior” could also be helpful.

Social norms do evolve. Fewer people now smoke and more of them wear seatbelts…. Government or foundation-funded social marketing campaigns can change attitudes. Campaigns devoted to reducing teenage smoking and drunken driving have succeeded. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (on whose board I serve) has pioneered efforts of this kind to reduce pregnancy.

I highlight these as just a few of the ideas on this topic that are being discussed by Isabel and other experts nationwide.

It is hard to disagree with the idea of making parenthood a more intentional choice, particularly for those who are most economically affected by an unplanned pregnancy. But the path to making this idea a reality is not a clear (or easy) one.

What is clear is that single parenthood is no longer a topic that can be ignored. It’s an essential discussion that impacts the future success of our communities, families, and country. Thanks to Isabel and Kay for sharing their time and insights. Links to two of their most recent articles appear below.




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