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The Ladder

A Blog from New America's Asset Building Program

Single Mothers and Financial Security: Data and Definitions

Published:  November 19, 2012

Editor's note: This post is the first in a series of three exploring the issue of asset building and single motherhood. Haley Eagon, a current senior at Williams College in Massachusetts, interned with the Asset Building Program this summer and authored these posts.

Single motherhood has been a subject of interest from the media, policymakers, researchers, and the public in general. Experts disagree on the importance of family structure in determining outcomes for children, but the percentage of births to unmarried mothers has been on the rise. According to Census Bureau figures, in 1990, 26.6% of births were to unmarried mothers; in 2008, over 40% of births were to unmarried mothers. Worrisomely, children with a single mother are substantially more likely to live in poverty than children living in married couple families (47.6% of kids in single mother households were poor in 2011 compared with 10.9% of kids with married parents.) According to analysis by the National Women’s Law Center, more than half of all poor children in 2011 lived in single mother households.

Poverty and Assets 

In 2010, Mariko Chang and C. Nicole Mason authored a paper for the Women of Color Policy Network that took a close look at the dynamics of single motherhood and assets in the U.S. According to Chang and Mason, “Compared to two-parent families, households headed by single women mothers are more likely to live in poverty and have fewer financial assets.” They also show that children who grow up in poverty are more likely to be poor as adults. The Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund similarly finds that nearly two out of five families headed by a single mother are poor, a rate considerably higher than that of married couple families. In addition, research from the Urban Institute finds that single mothers are more likely than others to leave a job for health, family, or temporary job reasons (as opposed to job loss).

These data contribute to the worry that children raised by single mothers are less likely to have the emotional and monetary resources needed to grow and thrive. For some researchers, such as Stephanie Coontz and Kathryn Edin, single motherhood is a way of life that, while being met with more structural and monetary hardship, has the ability to produce healthy families, particularly if accompanied by adequate and varied forms of support.

Outcomes aside, single motherhood is increasingly prevalent. “In 2008, 45 percent of all custodial mothers were divorced or separated and 34.2 percent had never married” (Chang & Mason, 2010). Since 1980, the percentage of births to unmarried women has increased to 71.6, 51.3, and 27.8 percent for African American, Latina, and white women respectively. As rates of single motherhood increase, so too do concerns about the financial security of these women and their families. 

Single Fathers and Gender Factors

Why not include single fathers in the conversation, and address the topic of single parenting in general? Single parents regardless of gender face unique challenges that married couples do not. (For example, recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that one in four single father households are food insecure, nearly double the rate for married couple households. However, single mothers experience higher rates still, suggesting that gender-based factors are also at play.)

In addition to being more common, single mothers in particular find themselves statistically more likely to have less income and fewer assets than single fathers. While the gender wage gap has improved in recent decades, factors such as occupational segregation, average weekly hours worked, time out of the workforce, and discrimination continue to contribute to the gender wage gap. The gap is particularly compounded for women of color, who are also more likely to be raising children on their own. (In fact, as Mariko Change recently argued at the 2012 Assets Learning Conference, addressing the gender wealth gap is a key mechanism to addressing the racial wealth gap, in part because of their greater likelihood of single motherhood.)

Wealth, Assets, and Economic Mobility

Less well known, but perhaps just as significant for understanding the long-term outcomes of single-female-headed households, is the discrepancy in wealth. “Single mothers have a median wealth of only $100, which amounts to 4 percent of the median wealth of single fathers ($25,300),” explain Chang and Mason. Research by Thomas Shapiro and Melvin Oliver articulates the important role wealth plays for families, as a buffer to hardship and a launch pad to future economic success.

Current research paints a worrisome picture for the life prospects of single mothers and their children. Economic mobility (the likelihood of moving up the income ladder) is more challenging for the children of single mothers. A large body of research also shows that children of single mothers are more likely to engage in risky behavior such as drug use and unprotected sex. One of the ongoing challenges of interpreting these data, however, is the difficulty in distinguishing to what extent these outcomes are socioeconomic vs. directly attributable to their mother’s marital status.

Chang and Mason’s paper, as well as the work of other researchers, successfully outlines the experiences, challenges, and issues of importance for single mothers. Many single mothers struggle for various complex reasons to achieve financial stability. The conversation about how to address these struggles must include analysis of wealth and income inequality. The next post in this series will provide further analysis of single motherhood in America, and how our policies should be adapting to fit the changing needs of Americans.

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