NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Rise in Single Motherhood Since 1965

December 10, 2014

In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan caused a stir when he reported on the growing number of black children being born to single mothers and growing up without a father in the home, contending that the trend towards fatherless families would reduce those children's chances of succeeding academically and economically.

Has that held true? Princeton University professor Sara McLanahan and Christopher Jencks, professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, write that Moynihan's assessment of the changing structure of black families was right on target:

  • In 1965, 25 percent of black children and 5 percent of white children lived in families with a single mother.
  • Since 2003, around 50 percent of black children have been raised by unmarried mothers. The comparable rate for whites has sat around 18 to 20 percent since the mid-1990s.
  • In 1960, just 5 percent of births were to unmarried mothers. That number had reached 41 percent for all races by 2010 and had reached 72 percent for blacks by 2010.

McLanahan and Jencks note that nature of single motherhood has changed drastically over the last 50 years:

  • Single mothers today are far less likely ever to have been married than the single mothers of the past; in 1960, 95 percent of single mothers had actually been married at some point in the past. Today, only 50 percent of single mothers had been married previously.
  • Mothers who have not completed college have seen the biggest rise in single-motherhood. From 1980 to 2010, the number of black children living with unmarried mothers without a high school diploma had risen from 55 to 66 percent; the number living with unmarried mothers who had not finished college had risen from 43 to 50 percent; and the number living with unmarried mothers who had graduated from college had risen from 23 to 28 percent.

The rise in single motherhood among less educated women has created economic struggles for families, as single mothers tend to have lower earnings than married mothers. McLanahan and Jencks note that families headed by unmarried mothers had a 40 percent poverty rate in 2013, compared to an 8 percent poverty rate for families headed by a married couple.

The impact of the single-motherhood trend on children has been added instability and complexity, say the authors, with the children of unmarried mothers being more likely to have half-siblings and to live with multiple adults. Before the child of an unmarried mother reaches the age of five, 61 percent of single mothers will live with a new partner, while 11 percent will live with three or more partners.

The researchers note that a child who grows up with only one of his biological parents is 40 percent less likely to graduate from high school, with the absence of a father leading to behavioral issues and delinquency. McLanahan and Jencks also note that past studies indicate the children of an absent father have less chances of becoming employed.

Source: Sara McLanahan and Christopher Jencks, "Was Moynihan Right?" Education Next, Spring 2015. 


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