Single Parent Families: Definition, Statistics, and FAQs

Danika McClure
Single-parent families

Since the turn of the 21st century, single-parent families have become more common than ever before. Today, single parents far outnumber what was once considered the ‘nuclear family’ which consisted of a mother, father, and their children. Today’s family unit is much more diverse, and can include family units of multiple varieties, including single mothers, single fathers, grandparents, families who split custody, and a number of other possible scenarios.

Though these situations are far more common than they once were, that doesn’t mean that single parent families don’t have significant challenges to overcome. Two-parent, or nuclear families, typically speaking, have a much easier time balancing childcare, finances, school schedules, household chores, and workloads than single-parent families do.

Table of Contents

What Is a Single-Parent Family?

There are a number of ways that a single-parent family can present itself. Generally speaking though, single parent families are defined as those who are raising children after becoming divorced, widowed, single by choice, or are unmarried parents that live together who have children under the age of 18.

Since single-parent families can sometimes qualify for a lower taxable income under “head of household” status, the IRS has very specific guidelines that must be met.

In order to to file as head of household, you must:

  • Pay for more than half of your household expenses
  • Be considered unmarried for the tax year filed
  • You must have a qualifying child or dependent

Qualifying Children or Dependents

The requirement for a qualifying child or dependent extends beyond just your own biological children. To be considered a qualifying dependent, the child must meet the criteria in each of the following categories, according to the IRS:

  • The child must be your biological child, stepchild, foster child, sibling, step sibling, half sibling, or a descendant (child, grandchild, great grandchild, etc.) of one of these relatives
  • The child must have lived within your home for more than six months during the tax year
  • The child needs to be younger than you
  • As of the end of the tax year, the child must be under 19 if he is not a student, or under 24 if he is a full-time college student
  • The child must not have paid for more than half of his living expenses during the tax year

Single Parent Households Statistics

According to the 2017 census, there are 19.97 million children in the United States that live in single-parent households. 16,767 million children live solely with their mother, while 3,206 children live with their father. This is a significant change from decades past. In the 1970’s for example, 7,452 million children lived with a single mother, while 748 million lived with single fathers.

Still, dual-parent households are the majority of American families. 69 percent of children live with two parents, while the next most common demographic represented is single-mother households which represent 23 percent.

“Despite the rise of childbearing outside of marriage, the majority of children in the United States still live with two married parents,” Jonathan Vespa, demographer in the Fertility and Family Statistics Branch at the Census Bureau, said.

The rate of single-parent families statistically varies depending on your race, location, and age, however, the CDC and Census Bureau has found. The most recent available report, published in 2010, indicates the following statistics about single parent families based on race and ethnicity:

  • Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders: 17 percent
  • Non-Hispanic whites: 29 percent
  • Hispanics: 53 percent
  • American Indian and Native Alaskans: 66 percent
  • Non-Hispanic blacks: 73 percent

It should be noted, however, that this data doesn’t necessarily mean that these children do not have contact with each of their parents. Rather, it indicates that one of their parents might not live in the same household with them.

What Is True About Single-Parent Families?

Given that the nuclear family has been the norm in the United States for decades, there are a number of myths and stereotypes associated with single-parent families. This is especially true for marginalized populations, including single mothers, single-parents of color, LGBTQ-parents, and even parents who fall in specific income brackets.

Many of these stereotypes, however, are misunderstood, and overall, many studies into the subject provide contradictory information. In essence, the success, happiness, and emotional stability of children relies on a variety of factors; not just the status of their family life.

Effects of Single Parent Households on Children

Again, while there are a number of studies that present conflicting information about the overall well-being of children living in single-parent households, many recent studies available indicate that the children of most single-parent families have the same overall success rates as those with traditional nuclear families. It does, however, depend on the intersecting identities of individual families and is overall a highly personal experience.

Earlier research typically found, however that children benefit from growing up in married households. “We’re trying to get a little bit past that,” Phillip Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley College and one of the authors of this same study noted. “Just to recognize that the impact might not be the same for everyone.”

Can Single Parents Adopt Children?

According to a recent piece published in the New York Times, white married people are the most likely, historically speaking, to adopt children. That trend is changing, however.

“Over the course of several decades, that paradigm has shifted,” writes Adam Pertman, president of the Massachusetts-based National Center on Adoption and Permanency.

Pertman, an expert in his field, also describes that there are a number of societal shifts happening that make single mothers, single fathers, grandparents, and other family members far more likely to embrace foster care and adoption.

In more recent years, the piece notes, the adoption and foster care system has opened up to include families that are more diverse, including single men and women, LGBTQ individuals, racially diverse populations, those who are differently abled.

“One of the biggest myths is that a person has to be married to adopt,” writes Kathy Ledesma, the national project director for Adopt US Kids, a project of the Department of Health and Human Services. She also implies that single men and women account for roughly one-third of adoptions from foster care handled through child welfare agencies. In essence, single parents are more than able, and generally willing, to adopt children.

Can Single Parents Join the Military?

While single parents do have many rights, job opportunities, and tax breaks, one thing they are generally not able to do, is to enlist in active military duty without transferring primary custody of their children.

The reason is simple, the military began to stop accepting single-parents for enlistment because of the complications that those situations caused.

“After the attacks on September 11, 2001, with more than 15 years of sustained combat action, the chances for single parents joining is impossible without custody transfer,” write the career experts at The Balance.

If while in the middle of active duty service you happen to become a single parent, you have to guarantee that a family member or local member of your support group that is nonmilitary will be able to be on call for the remainder of your service period, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you can’t guarantee that, the consequences are immediate discharge.

These guidelines can change depending on which branch of the military you decide to go into, however.

In the Marine Corps and Navy, for example, “One must give up legal custody (by court order) of their child(ren), and then wait one year or more before being eligible for enlistment. For Navy enlistments, the waiting period is six months and the court order must make it very plain that the transfer of custody is permanent. Typically, custody given to grandparents of the dependent child is an acceptable option.”

In other branches, however, things can be different.

“In the Army and Air Force, single-parent military applicants for enlistment must indicate they have a child or children in the custody of the other parent or another adult. They are then advised and required to acknowledge by certification that their intent at the time of enlistment was not to enter the Air Force or Army with the express intention of regaining custody after enlistment.”

Depending on your career trajectory, it is best to check in with the person who is helping to enlist you, as well as any legal options you may have.

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