POVERTY, DISRUPTION AND SINGLE-PARENT FAMILIES
What is the problem with single-parent families? Why do
the children of single mothers drop out of school at a rate
twice that of children from intact homes? And why do their
teen-aged daughters become pregnant twice as often as girls
who live with both parents?
The obvious answer is because they don’t have fathers at
home to help with the parenting, to provide guidance, love,
and a role-model for achieving success in the world of work.
But that’s too easy, says Sara McLanahan, Ph.D., a
Princeton professor of sociology. In her book, “Growing up with a
Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps” co-authored
with Gary Sandefur, McLanahan suggests that it is poverty
that is primarily to blame for the failure to succeed common
among single-parented children.
In their study of more than 35,000 children, income was
seen to be the largest contributor towards explaining
differences between drop-out and pregnancy rates of single-
parented vs. two-parented kids.
Another important factor is the degree of disruption in
the lives of these kids. Single-parent families move twice
as often, disrupting schooling, friendships and community
Single mothers typically are torn between working and
parenting, allowing them less time to spend with their kids
and diminishing their influence and authority in the home.
This is another, more indirect, result of the income gap.
It is interesting to note that children in stepfamilies
do no better than those with single parents. This may also
be due to increased disruption. Stepfamilies move three
times as often as intact families. The marriages are often
short-lived, children often do not receive significant
attention from their stepfathers and stepfathers usually
bring in less money due to support obligations to children
from previous marriages.
The number of single-parent and stepfamilies is rising.
The children from these families are more likely to become
single-parents themselves. This is a problem that isn’t
going away any time soon.