Once largely limited to poor women and minorities, single motherhood is now becoming the new “norm”. This prevalence is due in part to the growing trend of children born outside marriage — a societal trend that was virtually unheard of decades ago.
About 4 out 10 children were born to unwed mothers. 1 Nearly two-thirds were born to mothers under the age of 30. 2 Today 1 in 6 children under the age of 18 — a total of about 12.7 million — are being raised without a father. 3
Snapshot of Single Mother Families (2021) #
Around half (52.3%) of single mothers have never married, almost a third (29.3%) are divorced, 18.4% are either separated or widowed. 6 Half have one child, 30% have two. About two thirds are White, one third Black.
At any one time, about two thirds of single mothers are working outside the home, a slightly greater share than the share of married mothers who are also working outside the home.
However, only half were employed full-time all year long, a quarter (25.9%) were jobless the entire year. 7 Among those who were laid off or looking for work, less than a quarter (22.4%) received unemployment benefits.
If a single mother is able to work, her earning power still lags significantly compared with men’s, about 82¢ to a $1 for the same job — leaving a wage gap of 18¢ on the dollar. 8
The wage disparities are even greater for women of color — African-American women earn only 64¢, while Hispanic and Latinas fare worse, being paid just 56¢ on the dollar.
Single mothers earn income that place them well below married mothers in the income ladder. The gap between the two groups is significantly large.
The median income for families led by a single mother in 2020 was about $49,214, well below the $101,517 median for married couples. 9
Out of more than 10 million low-income working families with children, 39% were headed by single working mothers or about 4.1 million. The proportion is much higher among African Americans (65%), compared with whites (36%).
Only one third of single mothers received any child support, and the average amount these mothers received was only about $286 a month. 10
Single mothers are much more likely to be poor than married couples. The poverty rate for single-mother families in 2020 was 23.4%, nearly five times more than the rate (4.7%) for married-couple families. 11
Among children living with mother only, 38.1% lived in poverty. In contrast, only 7.5% of children in two parent families were counted as poor.
Families headed by women of color fared even worse. Nearly two in five (35%) of Black female-headed families lived in poverty, Hispanic (34%), White (26%), and Asian (22%).
Among all other ethnic groups, Native American female-headed families with children had the highest poverty rate. More than two in five (43%) lived in poverty.
Almost one third (27.7%) of single mother families were “food insecure,” 12 about one-ninth (11.7%) used food pantries, one third spent more than half their income on housing, which is generally considered the threshold for “severe housing cost burden.”
Families headed by single mothers are among the poorest households, more than a third lived in poverty, and as such, are extremely vulnerable to homelessness.
Among all homeless families nationwide, about two thirds (60%) were headed by single women with children — representing 21% of the total homeless population; nearly half were African Americans (49%).
Welfare & Food Stamp Receipt #
A majority (62%) of SNAP households with children were single mother households. Only 11% received cash benefits from TANF. Though a small percentage, they represent more than 90% of all TANF families.
Among children with single mothers, 38% get food stamps and 62% don’t. Roughly two thirds received free or reduced-price meals. Only 8.5% of children in single mother families received TANF. 13
Even for those who did receive assistance, the amount was far less than the minimum they’d need to to stave off hardship — like hunger, homelessness, and utility cut-offs.
TANF benefit levels for a family of three, as of 2020, were less than 30% of the poverty line in 33 states and the District of Columbia — and above 50% in none.
Access to Health Care #
Across all income levels, single mothers are the group more likely to lack health insurance but the uninsured rates among single mothers have fallen in recent years — thanks to Obamacare.
According to the latest available data, 13.4% had no health coverage. By comparison, only 6.7% were uninsured in two-parent households.
Although the Affordable Care Act will give more low-income single mothers access to health insurance, nearly half of these families reside in states that have declined to expand their Medicaid programs.
Among the 14 states not expanding Medicaid coverage, the median eligibility level for parents is just 44% FPL, with only two (2) states — Tennessee, and Wisconsin, covering parents with incomes at or near poverty.
Access to Child Care #
Nationally the annual cost of center-based infant care averaged over 40% of the state median income for a single mother. About 32% for a school-age child.
In Massachusetts, California, and Oregon, a single mother with an infant ages 0-3 would have to pay more than half of her income for day care at a center.
Child care subsidy, if eligible, is hard to come by. In 2019, 15 states had wait lists or had frozen their intake for child care assistance, with wait times ranging from 90 days to two years. 14
Access to Education #
Single mothers often spend over half of their income on housing expenses and a third on child care, leaving them with less money for educational expenses.
Without financial aid, single mother students have little or no means to contribute financially to their educational expenses. One third graduated with a college degree, while one sixth had not completed high school.
Compared to Single Mothers in Peer Countries #
The majority of single mothers in the United States are separated, divorced or widowed; and they work more hours and yet have higher poverty rates than single mothers in other high-income countries.
This is due to the fact that many employed single mothers are earning poverty wages. About 40% of U.S. single parents were employed in low-wage jobs and often had no access to paid leave.
No. of Paid Time off for New Mothers #
These along with less generous “safety net programs” and wage inequality among women help explain the exceptionally high poverty rate for single mother families in the U.S.
- Statista, Percentage of births to unmarried women in the United States from 1980 to 2019
- CDC, Births: Final Data for 2019, Table 10. Birth rates for unmarried women: United States, 2010–2019
- U.S. Census Bureau – Table C2. Household Relationship and Living Arrangements of Children Under 18 Years, by Age and Sex: 2021
- U.S. Census Bureau – Table FG10. Family Groups: 2021
- Households led by a female householder with no spouse present with own children under 18 years living in the household.
- U.S. Census Bureau – Table FG6. One-parent Unmarried Family Groups With Own Children Under 18
- U.S. Department of Labor, Employment Characteristics of Families (2020) – Table 4
- PayScale, The State of the Gender Pay Gap in 2021
- U.S. Census Bureau – Income and Poverty in the United States: 2020
- U.S. Census Bureau – Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support
- U.S. Census Bureau – Income and Poverty in the United States: 2020
- USDA, Household Food Security in the United States in 2019
- U.S. Census Bureau – Table C8. Poverty Status, Food Stamp Receipt, and Public Assistance for Children Under 18 Years by Selected Characteristics: 2021
- NWLC, Early Progress: State Child Care Assistance Policies 2019