According to 2012 data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census, about 26 percent of families are headed by single mothers. What is more, the data show that 47 percent of children are born to unmarried women.
Clearly, family structures are changing and a woman’s role in our society is also transforming. It is no secret that women are starting to have fewer children; the fertility rate is hitting a record low of about 1.8 children, down from 3.7 during the baby-boom. Also, while it may not feel this way to many, the country’s economy is now characterized as a provider of better opportunities for study and work for women. Consequently, men have become more dispensable and women have become more independent.
Now, let’s look at single-motherhood data by examining what happens when we split the percentage of single mothers by ethnicity. The percentages of female householders with children under 18 for white mothers is 21; for African–American mothers, it is 52; for Hispanic mothers, it is 30; and for Asian mothers, it is only 13.
Previous disparities around these statistics, as measured across different ethnicities, were very large. But, what is most troubling is that it continues to be the case that single mothers and their children are very prone to live in poverty. Considering all races, about 40 percent of households led by single mothers live in poverty. This implies that almost half of single mothers have an annual income of less than $25,000; their median income is one third that of married couples. Although this situation is bad, it is better as compared to the early 1960’s when similar household poverty levels were as high as 60 percent.
The percentages of single mothers and their children living in poverty by ethnicity are: 37 for white mothers, 46 for African-American, 27 for Asian and 48 for Hispanic mothers. When you look at the numbers in a different way, it is abundantly clear that the majority of poor children are born to single mothers. This poverty has severe consequences – correlated school dropout, and involvement with the criminal justice system. While it hard to prove causality between growing up in poverty and not receiving a good education, it is apparent to many that a relationship between these two issues exists.
Later in life, children of single mothers are less able to find good work that pays well.
As we said before, about 47 percent of children are born to unwed mothers. Nevertheless, this type of high rate is not only found in the U.S. High rates are almost a global phenomenon. According to the World Family Map, in Colombia and Peru the rate is higher than 80 percent, Chile and Nicaragua are close behind. In another part of North America, Mexico has a rate of 55 percent. Canada experiences a 30 percent rate of children being born to unwed mothers. Western Europe has an average rate of 40 percent. Within this context, the U.S. can be considered as an average case.
One might wonder why we are mixing a discussion of poverty, single motherhood and babies being born out of wedlock. While in European countries, where cohabitation is very high, there is little difference between the split up rates of married couples and those who have been living together, in more religious societies, where cohabitation rates are lower, splitting up is a more prominent part of life for those cohabitating than for those who marry.
By the way, in citing these statistics, we are not trying to cast dispersions toward those whose unions have not worked out. Nor are we trying to predict that children from single mother homes will not succeed. We are simply trying to point out the situations that exist and bring light to a major correlation predominant in our society – single motherhood and poverty often exist side by side.