Single father households on the rise

Whenever conversations about single parent households arise, most people instinctively think of mothers. Many—from politicians to televisions hosts–blame single mothers for society’s ills, pinning crime rates, dropout statistics, and all manner of problems to the backs of single moms. Moreover, the conversation on single motherhood often overlooks women who are raising their children with an involved co-parent and/or partner, but instead lumps all single mothers into the “single, never married” category despite it not quite painting an accurate picture of the truth.

The focus on single mothers has all but erased a growing segment of parents: single fathers. But a recent survey by the Pew Research Center sheds new light on dads who are doing it alone.

The Pew report defined single fathers as “men who are ages 15 or older, who are the head of their household, and who report living with their own minor children (biological children, step-children or adopted children). Fathers who are living in a household headed by someone else are excluded from the analysis, as are fathers whose children are not living with them.”

According to the data, 8% of households in the U.S. are now headed by single fathers, up from just 1% in 1960. This number has increased ninefold (households headed by single mothers have increased fourfold since 1960)—from less than 300,000 to more than 2.6 million. Moreover, single father households now account for nearly a quarter (24%) of all single parent households in the U.S.

So why isn’t the media sounding alarm against this growing trend?

One reason may be that it’s easier to blame single mothers for social problems rather than deal with the structural issues (systematic racism, the pay gap, disparities in public education, etc.) that are at the root cause of the problem. For instance, although single fathers earn less than their married counterparts, they out earn single moms, with just 24% of single dads living below the poverty line verses 43% of single mothers. This is especially interesting because the Pew Center found that single fathers are slightly less educated than single mothers.

Another reason single dads may be able to opt out of the “single parents are the scourge of society” debate is because over half of them (56%) are White (15% Black, 24% Hispanic), while 55% of single mothers are minorities (45% White, 28% Black, 22% Hispanic).

The Pew Center reports:

Like single mothers, single fathers are typically less educated and less well-off than their married counterparts. They are also younger and less likely to be white. However, single father householders differ from single mother householders on several indicators. Most notably, households headed by single fathers appear to be much better off financially when compared with those headed by single mothers.

Single fathers are younger than married fathers, but older than single mothers. While just 8% of married fathers are younger than 30, this share is 18% for single fathers and 23% for single mothers. And at the other end of the age spectrum, fully 47% of single fathers are 40 years or older. This is the case for just 38% of single mothers and fully 59% of married fathers.

Single father householders are more likely to be white than single mother householders, but less likely to be white than married father householders. Just over half (56%) of single fathers are white, as are 45% of single mothers and two-thirds (66%) of married fathers. Single fathers are much less likely to be black—15% are—as compared with single mothers (28%), but more likely to be black than fathers in married two-parent households (7%). The share of single fathers that is Hispanic is close to the share among single mothers (24% and 22%, respectively), but is higher than the share among married fathers (17%).

The educational attainment of single father householders is markedly lower than that of married father householders. About one-fifth (19%) of single dads lack a high school diploma, while just 10% of married fathers lack one. Among single mothers, this share is 15%. Equally dramatic differences emerge at the other end of the education spectrum; just 17% of single fathers (and 18% of single mothers) have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 40% of married fathers.

In terms of household financial status, single fathers are much better off than single mothers, and much worse off than married fathers. Median adjusted annual income for a single dad household of three is about $40,000—a far cry from the $70,000 median among households headed by married fathers, but much higher than that of households headed by single mothers, where the median adjusted annual income for a three-person household is only $26,000.

The same pattern is reflected in poverty status across these household types. Almost one-fourth (24%) of single father households are living at or below the poverty level, compared with just 8% of married father households and fully 43% of single mother households.

While I doubt single dads will begin to shoulder some of the “blame” lobbed at single mothers–after all women are often at the center of any discussion on parenting whether they’re single or not–the increasing numbers of men choosing to parent their children alone should at least score them a seat at discussion table.

Policies targeted toward supporting single parent families are often geared solely to women, but in light of the growing share of single dads, it’s clear men must be included in these conversations.

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  • Wanda

    I have to say that I’ve seen a small number of children come through my schools who are raised by single fathers, and quite honestly, those children don’t seem to be carrying the same “baggage” as the children from the single mother households. Especially the boys.

    The negative academic data of the boys from the single-mother households is unfortunately through the roof…