A sizable minority of children in rich countries live with just one parent who is likely to be a working female — and the U.S. tops that list.
The U.S. has the developed world's highest proportion of single parents, with one in four children being raised by one parent, according to a study based on the analysis of ending with 2007-year statistics conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Usually, that parent is the mom or other female. In the U.S., as in every other industrialized country, most single-parent households are single-mother households.
I found this study supports my intuitive sense of an amazing shift that has occurred within the past few decades. When I was a kid in the late 50's, divorce was rare, births to unwed mothers even more rare. Back then, generally no single person was ever allowed to adopt, and never-ever same-sex couples, so single-parent homes generally occurred only through divorce or the death of a parent.
My parents were divorced in the 70's. Even then, it was somewhat scandalous. I distinctly remember my Junior High (Middle) School athletic coach calling me into her office. I was a female-jock throughout my youth, so she knew me well. I thought she was going to talk to me about one of our teams, but instead she asked me about my parents' divorce. In those days, their names were printed in the newspaper's "Vital Statistics" section, which listed births, deaths, separations and divorces. I was horrified. I answered her questions with one word when possible. I had the unmistakable feeling that she was more interested in gossip than she was worried about me (my father is well-known in my hometown.)
Now, there is no "Vital Statistics" in newspapers to embarrass the newly separated or divorced, and happily singles and same-sex couples can adopt children.
It is incredible that in our culture, as well as those of most of the other industrialized countries, the study found that the past has flipped completely over within such a short time. I also found it interesting that the study looked at what it was like for a single mom to raise children, but did not delve into the impact of being the child on a single-parent household.
My parents' divorce definitely had a negative impact on me.
Of 27 industrialized countries studied by the OECD, the U.S. had 25.8 percent of children raised by a single parent, compared with an average of 14.9 percent among the other countries in the study.
According to NewsOne, a news agency serving the African American community, the study found that 72 percent of black children in the U.S. are raised in single-parent households.
The only country in the study where single fathers look like more than a faint sliver is Belgium, where there are still nearly twice as many children living with single mothers as with single fathers.
Exactly what it means to be a single parent — for your lifestyle and how you spend your time — varies greatly by country. In some countries, including the United States and Japan, nearly all single parents work; in others, like Malta and Turkey, most single parents do not have jobs.
Ireland, in the U.K., was second with 24.3 percent; followed by New Zealand with 23.7 percent. Greece, Spain, Italy and Luxembourg had among the lowest percentages of children being raised in single-parent homes, according to the study.
Experts pointed to a variety of factors to explain the high U.S. percentage, including a cultural shift toward greater acceptance of single-parent child rearing.
Sadly, the study noted that the U.S. also lacks policies to help support families, including childcare at work and national paid maternity leave, which are commonplace in other countries.
"When our parents married, there was a sense that you were marrying for life," said Edward Zigler, founder and director of Yale's Edward Zigler Centre in Child Development and Social Policy. "That sense is not as prevalent."
Single parents in the U.S. were more likely to be employed — 35.8 percent compared to a 21.3 percent average — but they also had higher rates of poverty, the report found.
“The in-work poverty is higher in the U.S. than other OECD countries, because at the bottom end of the labor market, earnings are very low,” said Willem Adema, a senior economist in the group’s social policy division. “For parents, the risk is higher because they have to make expenditures on childcare costs.”
The Paris-based organization looked at a broad sector of indicators that affected families and children, including childhood poverty, early education and amount of time spent on parental care.
Across the nations examined, preschool enrollment has grown from 30 to 50 percent between 1998 and 2007. The average enrollment was 58.2 percent, while in the U.S. it was lower.
The report noted that public spending on child welfare and education is higher in the U.S. than in other countries — $160,000 per child compared to $149,000. However, the authors say most of that money is spent after the crucial early childhood years.
“This means early investment — including childcare and support for families around the time of birth — could be strengthened,” the authors wrote in a separate paper examining the United States.
The study pointed out that the U.S. is the only OECD country that does not have a national paid parental leave policy. Some states have started to adopt such policies, but most parents are offered 12 weeks of unpaid leave. This is particularly difficult for unwed mothers, who may not be able to afford to take time off, Zigler said.
“We have not built in the kind of national support systems for families and children that other countries have,” he said.
Childhood poverty rates in the U.S. are also expected to climb — 23.5 percent from 20 percent. Adema said the rise is a direct result of the financial crisis and higher unemployment rates.
“The financial strain causes all sorts of other strain, so ultimately it might contribute to family dissolution,” Adema said. “At the same time, it might bring some families together. I suspect that the response differs across families.”
The single parent phenomenon has been occurring over recent decades. The study noted that the U.S. and the U.K. have higher teenage birth-rates than other countries, partially contributing to the higher single-parent numbers, though the proportion of children born outside marriage was not significantly higher than the other countries.
Christina Gibson Davis, a professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Police, said changing gender roles, the rise of contraception, high incarceration rates in some communities and an acceptance of having children out of wedlock have all contributed to the growing number.
Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, added it isn't being a single parent in itself that raises difficulties, saying, "Single moms do a brilliant and amazing job raising their children. It is also true that single moms in this country are systemically underpaid, and systematically under-resourced and systemically unrespected. It's not the fact they are single moms that makes things difficult."
— The Curator