(July 2001) Data recently released from the 2000 Census have exacerbated the misperception that the increase in single-parent families continues unabated. Census data showing that families maintained by single women increased three times as fast as married-couple families reflect trends that occurred during the first half of the 1990s; the second half of the decade has been a different story.

Over the last five years, it appears that the yearly increases in single-parent families that defined the U.S. landscape for more than 40 years have ended. The share of children born to unmarried mothers has stabilized, the divorce rate continues to fall, and the share of children living in single-parent families has stabilized and inched downward.

Historic Climb and Recent Trends

During the second half of the 20th century, the share of children living in single-parent families increased steadily. The 1960 Census reported that 9 percent of children lived in single-parent families, compared with the 28 percent reported by 2000. Among some groups and in some communities, the contemporary figure is much higher. Data from the 1990 Census show that more than half the kids in large cities such as Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., lived in single-parent families.


Children Living in Single-Parent Families, 1990–2000

Children Living in Single-Parent Families

Note: Data are for related children, which means children related to the head of the household through birth, marriage, or adoption.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, March Current Population Survey for the years 1990–2000.


Two major demographic trends can be identified as the underlying causes for the rise in single parenthood over the past several decades: the big increase in births to unmarried women and the increased rate of divorce. Today one-third of all births occur to unmarried women. Children also become part of single-parent families through the death of a parent, but widowhood has been a relatively minor factor for the past 50 years.

The figure above shows the percentage of children living in single-parent families over the past 10 years. The early 1990s reflected the continuation of the multidecade trend. But by 1995, something started to change. Between 1996 and 1999, the percentage of children in single-parent families stabilized at 29 percent, and it appears to have edged downward to 28 percent in 2000.

This change is the product of three separate trends. Between 1996 and 2000, the share of children living with a never-married parent rose (from 10.6 percent to 11.0 percent), but this increase was outweighed by a drop (from 17.3 percent to 15.6 percent) in the share living with a divorced parent. The share living with a widowed parent remained constant, at 1.2 percent of all children. In numerical terms, the number of children living with never-married parents increased by 400,000, but that was offset by a decline of 1 million kids living with divorced parents. The combination of these trends resulted in a smaller share of kids living with a single parent by 2000.

Public Interest and Policy Measures

Much of the public interest in the living arrangements of children stems from concern that children growing up in single-parent households have fewer resources available to them than those growing up in two-parent families. Forty-two percent of children in female-headed families were poor in 1999, compared with 8 percent of children in married-couple families.

The long-term rise in divorce and single parenting has led some policymakers to seek appropriate policy interventions to strengthen America's families. Since the mid-1990s, lawmakers have made reducing the number of single-parent families, particularly those formed when unmarried teenagers give birth, a prominent focus of federal and state welfare reform legislation. For example, the federal welfare reform law passed in 1996 rewards states for lowering out-of-wedlock births.

Congress recently acted to phase out the "marriage tax" and to increase the per child tax credit to reduce financial stress on families. President Bush's budget provides $64 million in fiscal year 2002 to fund community and religious groups that promote fatherhood, marriage education, and conflict resolution.

There are also changes underway at the state level. For example, the state of Louisiana allows couples to select a "covenant marriage," which makes it more difficult for couples to obtain a divorce. Oklahoma's governor last year announced a $10 million initiative to reduce his state's divorce rate by one-third by 2010.

It is unclear whether the recent changes in the percentage of children living in single-parent families reflect a temporary lull in the upward movement or a reversal of a long-term trend. Also, it is not clear whether improvement is happening across the nation or is a product of increases in some places balanced by declines elsewhere. Decomposition of trends in various geographic areas and among different groups will help us understand the implications of the momentous national changes witnessed during the 1990s.


Bill O'Hare is coordinator of KIDS COUNT, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in Baltimore, Maryland.


For More Information

Table 1
Children in Single-Parent Families, 1990-2000

Year Number in thousands % of Children
1990 15,867 25.4
1991 16,624 26.3
1992 17,578 27.4
1993 18,476 27.8
1994 18,595 27.9
1995 18,938 28.2
1996 19,755 29.1
1997 19,799 29
1998 19,777 28.9
1999 19,926 29
2000 19,223 27.8

Note: Data on children are for related children, which means related to the head of the household through birth, marriage, or adoption.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, March Current Population Survey for the years 1990–2000.

Table 2
Children in Single-Parent Families, by Marital Status of Parent, 1990-2000

  Parent Never Married Parent Is Divorced Parent Is Widowed
Year % of Children in Single-Parent Families
Number in thousands % of Children in Single-Parent Families Number in thousands Number in thousands % of Children in Single-Parent Families
1990 7.8 4,853 9,889 15.9 1,125 1.8
1991 8.8 5,567 10,167 16.1 890 1.4
1992 9.3 6,004 10,721 16.7 853 1.3
1993 9.8 6,532 11,154 16.8 790 1.2
1994 10 6,658 11,127 16.7 810 1.2
1995 9.8 6,559 11,549 17.2 830 1.2
1996 10.6 7,202 11,768 17.3 785 1.2
1997 11.1 7,553 11,552 16.9 693 1
1998 11.3 7,746 11,238 16.4 794 1.2
1999 11.2 7,724 11,373 16.6 829 1.2
2000 11 7,598 10,780 15.6 845 1.2

Note: Data on children are for related children, which means related to the head of the household through birth, marriage, or adoption.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, March Current Population Survey for the years 1990-2000.