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. Nearly two-thirds were born to mothers under the age of 30. Today 1 in 5 children under the age of 18 — a total of about 15.7 million — are being raised without a father. 1
According to U.S. Census Bureau, out of about 10 million single parent families with children under the age of 18, almost 80 percent were headed by single mothers. A third lived in poverty.
Around half (51.4%) of single mothers have never married, almost a third (29.3%) are divorced. About two thirds are White, one third Black. 2
- Never Married 51.4%
- Divorced 29.3%
- Separated 15.6%
- Widowed 3.6%
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, about one in five (20.8%) were jobless the entire year. 3 41% were employed in low-wage jobs. 4
Even if a single mother is able to work, her earning power still lags significantly compared with men’s, about 83¢ to a $1 for the same job — leaving a wage gap of 17¢ on the dollar. 5
Single mothers earn income that place them well below married mothers in the income ladder. The gap between the two groups is significantly large.
- Single Mothers $51,168
- Married Couples $106,921
The median income for families led by a single mother in 2021 was about $51,168, well below the $106,921 median for married couples. 6
Single mothers are much more likely to be poor than married couples. The official poverty rate for single-mother families in 2021 was 31.3%, nearly five times more than the rate (5.4%) for married-couple families. 7
Families headed by women of color fared even worse. More than one in three (37.4%) of Black female-headed families lived in poverty, Hispanic (35.9%), White (25.0%), and Asian (19.7%).
- Race Poverty Rate
- Native American 42.6%
- Black 37.4%
- Hispanic 35.9%
- White 25.0%
- Asian 19.7%
Among all other ethnic groups, Native American female-headed families with children had the highest poverty rate. More than two in five (42.6%) lived in poverty.
Among children living with mother only, 34.9% lived in poverty. In contrast, only 9.5% of children in two parent families were counted as poor. 8
Families headed by single mothers are among the poorest households, almost a third (24.3%) were "food insecure". 9 Nearly half (45.4%) received food stamps, while 7.3% received cash benefits from TANF. 8
- Food insecure 24.3%
- Received food stamps 45.4%
- Received TANF 7.3%
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.
In 15 states, TANF benefit levels for a family of three did not even reach 20% of the poverty line which is equivalent to about $414 per month.
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 from U.S. Census Bureau, 9.2% had no health insurance coverage. 10
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 11 states not expanding Medicaid coverage, the median eligibility level for parents is just 50% of the federal poverty level, 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 30% for a school-age child.
In Massachusetts, New York, Washington, Nebraska and California, 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.
|STATE||Average Annual Cost||Cost of Care|
Child care subsidy, if eligible, is hard to come by. In 2021, 13 states had wait lists or had frozen their intake for child care assistance, with wait times ranging from 90 days to two years. 11
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.
According to the latest data from U.S. Census Bureau, only 1 in 4 graduated with a college degree, while almost one sixth had not completed high school. 12
Without financial aid, single mother students have little or no means to contribute financially to their educational expenses.
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 in low-wage jobs and often have no access to paid leave.
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.
- Table C2, U.S. Census Bureau. Household Relationship and Living Arrangements of Children Under 18 Years, by Age and Sex: 2022
- Table FG6, U.S. Census Bureau. One-parent Unmarried Family Groups with Own Children Under 18, by Marital Status.
- Table FG5, U.S. Census Bureau. One-parent Unmarried Family Groups with Own Children Under 18, by by Labor Force Status.
- NWLC. Women in Low-Paid Jobs.
- PayScale, The State of the Gender Pay Gap in 2021
- U.S. Census Bureau – Income in the United States: 2021
- NWLC – National Snapshot: Poverty Among Women and Families.
- Table C8, U.S. Census Bureau. Poverty Status, Food Stamp Receipt, and Public Assistance for Children Under 18 Years by Selected Characteristics: 2022
- USDA, Household Food Security in the United States in 2021
- U.S. Census Bureau - Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2021
- NWLC, State Child Care Assistance Policies 2021
- Table F2, U.S. Census Bureau. Family Households, by Type, Age of Own Children, and Educational Attainment of Householder: 2022