No, Kids Raised by Single Moms Don’t Do as Well

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
July 20 2012 8:22 AM

The Kids Are Not Really Alright

It’s worse to be raised by a single mother, even if you’re not poor.

Sad Single Mom.
Sad Single Mom.

Photograph by Thinkstock.

At first glance, I might qualify as the poster boy for Katie Roiphe’s recent Slate article defending single mothers and their children. Raised by a strong and resourceful single mother, I turned out OK. Sure, I had some unusually angry outbursts as a child (like the time I threw my lunchbox across the dining hall at camp for no good reason) and had to endure my share of therapy for that anger. But I have managed to steer clear of prison, earn a Ph.D., hold down a decent job, and marry up. My life is proof positive, as Roiphe argues, that married-parent families “do not have a monopoly on joy or healthy environments or thriving children.”

But, as a social scientist, I can also say that the academic research paints a much more complicated picture of the impact of family structure on children than does my life story or Roiphe’s experience. It is true, as Roiphe believes, that most children from single-parent homes turn out fine. In her book, For Better or For Worse, psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington estimated that about 75 percent of children of divorce suffered from no major pathologies. In other words, most children of divorce do not end up depressed, drugged out, or delinquent.

But Hetherington, who like Roiphe embraces changing family structures, also was honest enough to admit that divorce tends to double a child’s risk of a serious negative outcome. Specifically, she found that “twenty-five percent of youths from divorced families in comparison to 10 percent from non-divorced families did have serious social, emotional, or psychological problems.” Other research suggests that the children of never-married single parents tend to do somewhat worse than children of divorced single parents.

Take two contemporary social problems: teenage pregnancy and the incarceration of young males. Research by Sara McLanahan at Princeton University suggests that boys are significantly more likely to end up in jail or prison by the time they turn 30 if they are raised by a single mother. Specifically, McLanahan and a colleague found that boys raised in a single-parent household were more than twice as likely to be incarcerated, compared with boys raised in an intact, married home, even after controlling for differences in parental income, education, race, and ethnicity. Research on young men suggests they are less likely to engage in delinquent or illegal behavior when they have the affection, attention, and monitoring of their own mother and father.

But daughters depend on dads as well. One study by Bruce Ellis of the University of Arizona found that about one-third of girls whose fathers left the home before they turned 6 ended up pregnant as teenagers, compared with just 5 percent of girls whose fathers were there throughout their childhood. This dramatic divide was narrowed a bit when Ellis controlled for parents’ socioeconomic background—but only by a few percentage points. The research on this topic suggests that girls raised by single mothers are less likely to be supervised, more likely to engage in early sex, and to end up pregnant compared with girls raised by their own married parents.

It’s true that poorer families are more likely to be headed by single mothers. But even factoring out class shows a clear difference. Research by the Economic Mobility Project at Pew suggests that children from intact families are also more likely to rise up the income ladder if they were raised in a low-income family, and less likely to fall into poverty if they were raised in a wealthy family. For instance, according to Pew’s analysis, 54 percent of today’s young adults who grew up in an intact two-parent home in the top-third of household income have remained in the top-third as adults, compared with just 37 percent of today’s young adults who grew up in a wealthy (top-third) but divorced family.

Why is this? Single mothers, even from wealthier families, have less time. They are less likely to be able to monitor their kids. They do not have a partner who can relieve them when they are tired or frustrated or angry with their kids. This isn’t just a question of taking kids to the array of pampered extracurricular activities that many affluent, two-parent families turn to; it’s about the ways in which two sets of hands, ears, and eyes generally make parenting easier. 

This recognition that it is easier to parent, and that kids are more likely to thrive, in a two-parent home might  be one reason why the divorce bug seems to be on the wane in progressive enclaves like Park Slope and Seattle, according to the New York Times. After the turmoil of the divorce revolution of the 1970s and early 1980s, a marriage mindset has reasserted itself among college-educated Americans. (Barack and Michelle Obama embody the new mindset; Newt Gingrich and his three wives embody the ‘70s mindset.) Today, college-educated Americans are divorcing less, steering clear of nonmarital childbearing, and enjoying relatively high-quality marriages. By contrast, as I recently pointed out in When Marriage Disappears, Americans without college degrees are divorcing at high rates, witnessing dramatic increases in nonmarital childbearing, and seeing their marital quality deteriorate.

The decline of marriage among poor and working-class Americans is partly a consequence of changes in the American economy. In today’s postindustrial economy, it is harder for less-educated Americans, especially poor and working-class men, to find stable, decent-paying jobs. This makes these men less attractive as marriage partners, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of their partners. Hence, less-educated Americans are less likely to get and stay married, even when they are having children.

But my research also suggests that changes in the culture—the kind of changes that Roiphe largely applauds—are implicated in the growing marriage divide between college-educated and less-educated Americans. Specifically, the growing secularization and liberalization of American society seem to be playing out differently by class. Surprisingly, college-educated Americans are now more likely to attend church than their less-educated fellow citizens, and they have also become more marriage-minded since the 1970s—in their attitudes toward divorce, for instance—whereas less-educated Americans have become less marriage-minded over the same time. These cultural changes are only reinforcing the marriage divide in America, insofar as religious attendance and marriage-minded norms tend to strengthen marriage.

The retreat from marriage in America, a retreat that Roiphe seems keen to defend, has led to “diverging destinies” for children from less-educated and college-educated homes. Children from poor and working-class homes are now doubly disadvantaged by their parents’ economic meager resources and by the fact that their parents often break up. By contrast, children from more-educated and affluent homes are doubly advantaged by their parents’ substantial economic resources and by the fact that their parents usually get and stay married.

Surely a progressive like Roiphe should be concerned about all this, rather than dismissing the recent New York Times news story on the marriage divide in America as a “puritanical and alarmist rumination on the decline of the American family.” Since when is it puritanical and alarmist in progressive circles to raise the red flag about a major driver of social and economic inequality?

W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter.