By:  Susan L. Pollet, Esq.

What do we know about single parents?  Due to an increase in the numbers of children born outside of marriage and the rise in divorce rates, there has been a three-fold increase in the proportion of children growing up in single-parent families since 1960.  As of the year 2000, about one third of the births in the U.S. were to unmarried mothers which has been described as one of the most profound changes in American society.

What does the research say about the effects of single parenthood on children?  There is a sizable body of research which indicates that children of single parents are generally more likely to be poor and to drop out of high school.  In addition, they are more likely to become teen parents and to experience health, behavior and mental health problems compared to children who are raised by married parents.  Most researchers agree that on average, children do best when raised by their two, married, biological parents who have low-conflict relationships.

This is qualified by the notion that marriage may or may not make children better off, depending on whether the marriage is healthy and stable.  There is other newer research, supported by the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, which finds that the advantage that children get from living in two-parent families may actually be due to family stability more than the fact that their parents are married.

In sum, despite the increased risks for children raised by single parents, a policy analyst highlights that the majority of children in these single parent families grow up without serious problems.  The debate does continue about how much of the disadvantages to children are attributable to poverty versus family structure, as well as about whether it is marriage itself that makes a difference or the type of people who get married.

What are the financial implications for single mother families?  Single mothers’ unemployment has been stated to be more than twice as much as married women’s, and the reason suggested is that single mothers have particular difficulty in finding jobs that are consistent with their family care responsibilities.  What makes matters worse for single mother households is the persistent gender wage gap which translates into women working full-time, year-round earning only 78 cents for every dollar earned by full-time, year-round male workers in 2007.  The result, it has been stated, is the inability for women whom support families alone to build up financial reserves, and these women are also less likely to have fringe benefits such as paid sick days.

There are numerous websites with information about organizations and resources to turn to for all aspects of being a successful single parent family. For a sampling of websites, please note the following:

http://www.parentswithoutpartners.org

http://www.singleparents.about.com

http://www.singleparentsnetwork.com

There is advice available for the children too, for  example, at:

http://kidshealth.org/kid/feeling/home_family/single_parents.html

What are the legal implications of the social science research?  Although no studies have been done analyzing the case law to determine the effect of single parenting on the decision making of judges in family law cases, clearly it is a factor they will consider, on a case-by-case basis.  This is true in the context of child support and custody and access determinations including schedules and relocation cases.

These days single parent families are mainstream and no longer nontraditional families in the United States given the statistics.  Attorneys, judges, mediators, mental health professionals and all other professionals and policy makers who work with and think about these families must be cognizant of the challenges of single parenthood and continue to work toward alleviating the burden on children so that the statement that children in two parent households generally fare better than children raised by one parent no longer must be the reality.