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.
Today 1 in 4 children under the age of 18 — a total of about 16.4 million — are being raised without a father.3
Of all single-parent families in the U.S., single mothers make up the majority.
Snapshot of Single Mother Families (2018)
- single parent families
- headed by single mothers
- were poor
- jobless the entire year
- were food insecure
Around half of single mothers have never married, 29% are divorced, 21% are either separated or widowed. Half have one child, 30% have two.6 About two thirds are White, one third Black.
- never married
- either separated or widowed
However, only half were employed full-time all year long, almost a third (26.8%) were jobless the entire year.9 Among those who were laid off or looking for work, less than a quarter (22.4%) received unemployment benefits.10
- jobless the entire year
- received unemployment benefits
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.11
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 2017 was about $41,700, well below the $90,380 median for married couples.12
- Median Income for Single Mothers
- Median Income for Married Couples
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%).13
Single mothers are much more likely to be poor than married couples. The poverty rate for single-mother families in 2017 was 34%, nearly five times more than the rate (6%) for married-couple families.16
Among children living with mother only, 40% lived in poverty. In contrast, only 12% of children in two parent families were counted as poor.17
- Black families were poor
- Hispanic families were poor
- White families were poor
Families headed by women of color fared even worse. Nearly two in five (37%) of Black female-headed families lived in poverty, Hispanic (41%), White (29%), and Asian (25%).
Among all other ethnic groups, Native American female-headed families with children had the highest poverty rate. More than 2 in 5 (42%) lived in poverty.
One third (30.3%) of single mother families were “food insecure,”18 one seventh (12.8%) used food pantries,19 one third spent more than half their income on housing,20 which is generally considered the threshold for “severe housing cost burden.”
- were food insecure
- used food pantries
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%).21
Welfare & Food Stamp Receipt
A majority (59%) of SNAP households with children were single mother households. Only 12% received cash benefits from TANF.22 Though a small percentage, they represent more than 90% of all TANF families.
- received food stamps
- received TANF cash benefits
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.23
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 2018, 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.24
- Free Insurance Quote
- had no health insurance
- covered by Medicaid
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.25
Among the 19 states not expanding Medicaid coverage, the median eligibility level for parents is just 44% FPL, with only three (3) states — Maine, 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.26
Access to Education
Single mothers often spend over half of their income on housing expenses and a third on child care,28 leaving them with less money for educational expenses.
- graduated with a college degree
- had not completed high school
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.24
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.29
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: Preliminary Data for 2015, Table 4
- U.S. Census Bureau – Table C2.
Household Relationship and Living Arrangements of Children Under 18 Years, by Age and Sex: 2018
- U.S. Census Bureau – Table FG10. Family Groups: 2018
- 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
- NWLC, Snapshot of Working Mothers
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mothers Participation in the Labor Force
- U.S. Department of Labor, Employment Characteristics of Families (2017) – Table 4
- 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: Income and Poverty in the United States: 2017
- 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, 2018
- U.S. Census Bureau – Table C8.
Poverty Status, Food Stamp Receipt, and Public Assistance for Children Under 18 Years by Selected Characteristics: 2016.
- USDA, Household Food Security in the United States in 2017
- USDA, Household Food Security in the United States in 2017: Statistical Supplement. Table S13
- Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, The State Of The Nation’s Housing 2011
- HUD, The 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress
- USDA, Characteristics of SNAP Households: Fiscal Year 2017
- U.S. Census Bureau – Table C8.
Poverty Status, Food Stamp Receipt, and Public Assistance for Children Under 18 Years by Selected Characteristics: 2018.
- Calculated using the U.S. Census Bureau 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 2017
- NATIONAL WOMEN’S LAW CENTER, State Child Care Assistance Policies 2016
- USDA, Expenditures on Children by Families, 2015
- Spotlight on Poverty: To Prevent Poverty, Reduce the Penalty for Single-Motherhood
- Legal Momentum, Worst Off – Single-Parent Families In The United States
- Business Insider, 10 countries with the best parental leave policies in the world