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.
Of all single-parent families in the U.S., single mothers make up the majority.
According to U.S. Census Bureau,3 out of about 12 million single parent families in 2016, the vast majority — more than 80% were headed by single mothers.
For those living with father only, about 22% live in poverty. In contrast, among children living with both parents, only 11% are counted as poor.
Statistics of Single Parent Families * (2016)
* with child(ren) under 18
Around 49% of single mothers have never married, 51% are either divorced, separated or widowed. Half have one child, 30% have two.6
About two thirds are White, one third Black, one quarter Hispanic. One third have a college degree, while one sixth have not completed high school.7
However, only half are employed full-time all year long, a quarter (23.4%) are jobless the entire year.10 Among those who were laid off or looking for work, less than a quarter (22.4%) received unemployment benefits.11
If a single mother is able to work, her earning power still lags significantly compared with men’s, about 79¢ to a $1 for the same job — leaving a wage gap of 21¢ on the dollar.12
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 2015 was about $34,000, one third (⅓) the median for married couple families ($84,000).13 Nearly half with an annual income of less than $25,000.
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%).14
Single mothers are much more likely to be poor than married couples. The poverty rate for single-mother families in 2015 was 36.5%, nearly five times more than the rate (7.5%) for married-couple families.17
More than half (51.9%) lived in extreme poverty with incomes below half of the federal poverty level18 — about $9,900 for a family of three. This translates into a weekly family budget of about $200.
Families headed by women of color fared even worse. Nearly two in five (39.9%) of Black female-headed families lived in poverty, Hispanic (41.9%), White (30.6%), and Asian (24.2%). Among all other ethnic groups, Native American female-headed families with children had the highest poverty rate (48.4%).17
One third (34.4%) of single mother families were “food insecure,”19 one seventh (13%) used food pantries,20 one third spent more than half their income on housing,21 which is generally considered the threshold for “severe housing cost burden.”
Single-parent families are among the poorest in the nation and as such, are extremely vulnerable to homelessness. Among all homeless families nationwide, over three quarters were headed by single women with children; two fifths were African Americans (43%).22
6 Welfare & Food Stamp Receipt
Although two fifths of all single mothers are poor, only one tenth of all single mothers receive TANF. Though a small percentage, they represent more than 90% of all TANF families.
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 2013, were less than 30% of the poverty line in 33 states and the District of Columbia — and above 50% in none.
7 Access to Health Care
Across all income levels, single mothers are the group who are more likely to lack health insurance. Nearly one-fifth (16%) had no health coverage in 2015. By comparison, only 9% of women in two-parent households had no insurance.25
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.26
Among the 23 states not currently expanding Medicaid, the average eligibility threshold remains very low at 49% or about $7700 for a single mother with a child.
8 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 Oregon, Massachusetts and New York, a single mother of an infant ages 0-3 would have to pay more than half of her income for day care at a center.27
9 Access to Education
Single mothers often spend over half of their income on housing expenses and a third on child care,29 leaving them with less money for educational expenses.
Without financial aid, single mother students — a total of about 2 million — have little or no means to contribute financially to their educational expenses.
Black and Hispanic women have the highest teen pregnancy rates — 100 and 84 per 1,000 women aged 15–19, respectively; whites have the lowest rate with 38 pregnancies per 1,000.32
In 2013, 15% of the 1.6 million children born out of wedlock in the U.S. were to teenagers under age 20, 37% were to women ages 20 through 24.33
Black women are more likely to have children outside of marriage than other racial or ethnic groups. In that year, about 72% of births to black women were non-marital births.34
Children born to young unmarried mothers are most likely to grow up in a single-parent household. More than two thirds end up on welfare.35
11 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.36
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 jobs37 — exceptionally high compared to single parents in peer countries.
If a single mother in the U.S. loses her job, she will find an unemployment insurance (UI) system that is less generous and more difficult to qualify for than it is in peer countries.
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.
- Child Trends, Births to Unmarried Women
- CDC, Births: Final Data for 2013, Table 6
- U.S. Census Bureau – Table FG10. Family Groups: 2016
- U.S. Census Bureau – Table C2.
Household Relationship and Living Arrangements of Children Under 18 Years, by Age and Sex: 2016
- U.S. Census Bureau – Table C8.
Poverty Status, Food Stamp Receipt, and Public Assistance for Children Under 18 Years by Selected Characteristics: 2016.
- U.S. Census Bureau – Table FG6. One-parent Unmarried Family Groups With Own Children Under 18
- Calculated by the author using the CPS Table Creator
- NWLC, Snapshot of Working Mothers
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mothers Participation in the Labor Force
- Employment Characteristics of Families (2016) — Table 2.
Families by presence and relationship of employed members and family type, 2015-2016 annual averages
- U.S. Census Bureau – Table 6.
Households by Labor Force Status of Members, Program Participation, and Mean Cash Income: Monthly Averages
- National Women’s Law Center, The Wage Gap Over Time
- U.S. Census Bureau – Table F10.
Presence of Children Under 18 Years Old by Type of Family – Families by Median and Mean Income
- The Working Poor Families Project, State Policy and Low-Income Working Mothers
- National KIDS COUNT, Female-headed families receiving child support
- Child Support: An Overview of Census Bureau Data on Recipients
- National Women’s Law Center, National Snapshot: Poverty Among Women & Families, 2015
- H. Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin, The Rise of Extreme Poverty in the United States
- USDA, Economic Research Service, Household Food Security in the United States in 2013
- USDA, Household Food Security in the United States in 2013: Statistical Supplement. Table S13
- Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, The State Of The Nation’s Housing 2011
- the National Center on Family Homelessness – The Characteristics and Needs of Families Experiencing Homelessness.
- Carsey Institute, SNAP Use Increased Slightly in 2012
- U.S. Census Bureau – Table C8.
Poverty Status, Food Stamp Receipt, and Public Assistance for Children Under 18 Years by Selected Characteristics: 2013.
- Women’s Health Insurance Coverage, 2015. Data calculated by the author using the CPS Table Creator
- Population Reference Bureau, Single Working Mothers in U.S. Worse Off Since the Recession
- SMG, Top 10 Least-Affordable States for Center-Based Infant Care in 2012
- NATIONAL WOMEN’S LAW CENTER, State Child Care Assistance Policies 2013
- USDA, Expenditures on Children by Families, 2013
- SMG, Student Parent Statistics
- Unintended Pregnancy: Incidence and Outcomes Among Young Adult Unmarried Women in the United States, 2001 and 2008
- Guttmacher Institute, U.S. Teenage Pregnancies, Births and Abortions, 2010
- CDC, Births: Preliminary Data for 2013, Table 4
- Congressional Research Service, Nonmarital Births: An Overview
- Rebecca A. Maynard, Kids Having Kids: Economic Costs and Social Consequences of Teen Pregnancy
- Spotlight on Poverty: To Prevent Poverty, Reduce the Penalty for Single-Motherhood
- Legal Momentum, Worst Off – Single-Parent Families In The United States