Trends of the Past Four Decades

Fragile Families with Children

Figure 10. Percentage of Children Under Age 18 Living with A Single Parent, by Year and Race, United States[A]

Figure 10. Percentage of Children Under Age 18 Living with A Single Parent, by Year and Race, United States
  1. The “Total” line includes all racial and ethnic groupings. Over the decades listed, an additional 3–4% of children, not indicated in the above figure, were classified as living with no parent. In 2003, the U.S. Census Bureau expanded its racial categories to permit respondents to identify themselves as belonging to more than one race. This means that racial data computations beginning in 2004 may not be strictly comparable to those of prior years. Prior to 2007, the U.S. Census counted children living with two cohabiting parents as children in single-parent households. See “Improvements to Data Collection about Families in CPS 2007.” Available to download at www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/improvements-07.pdf.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau: Current Population Reports: “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” for 2009 (Table C3). Available online from www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/p20.html.

Figure 11. Percentage of Children Under Age 18 Living with Two Married Parents, by Year and Race, United States[A]

Figure 11. Percentage of Children Under Age 18 Living with Two Married Parents, by Year and Race, United States
  1. The “All” line includes all racial and ethnic groupings. In 2003, the U.S. Census Bureau expanded its racial categories to permit respondents to identify themselves as belonging to more than one race. This means that racial data computations beginning in 2004 may not be strictly comparable to those of prior years. “Married Parents” include stepparents or natural/adoptive parents of children in the household.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau: Current Population Reports: “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” for 2009 (Table C3). And earlier similar reports. Available online at www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/p20.html.

Figure 12. Percentage of Live Births that Were to Unmarried Women, by Year, United States[A]

Figure 12. Percentage of Live Births that Were to Unmarried Women, by Year, United States
  1. “All” line includes all racial and ethnic groupings.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau: Statistical Abstract of the United States for 1995 (Table 94), for 1999 (Table 99), for 2000 (Table 85) and for 2001 (Table 76). Available online from www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/statab.html. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Vital Statistics Report 50; “Births: Preliminary Data” for 2008 (in NVS Report 58) (Table 1). Available online from www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/nvsr.htm.

Figure 13. Number of Cohabiting, Unmarried, Adult Couples of the Opposite Sex Living with One Child or More, by Year, United States[A]

Figure 13. Number of Cohabiting, Unmarried, Adult Couples of the Opposite Sex Living with One Child or More, by Year, United States
  1. Prior to 1996, the U.S. Census estimated unmarried-couple households based on two unmarried adults of the opposite sex living in the same household. After 1996, respondents could identify themselves as unmarried partners. The Census also identified children as those under 15 until 1996, when they began identifying children as those under 18.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau: Current Population Reports: “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” for 2009 (Table UC3). And earlier similar reports. Available online from www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/p20.html.

Key Finding: The percentage of children who grow up in fragile—typically fatherless—families has grown enormously over the past five decades. This is mainly due to increases in divorce, nonmarital childbearing, and unmarried cohabitation. The trend toward fragile families leveled off in the late 1990s, but the most recent data show a slight increase.

There is now ample evidence that stable and satisfactory marriages are crucial for the well-being of adults. Yet such marriages are even more important for the proper socialization and overall well-being of children. A central purpose of the institution of marriage is to ensure the responsible and long-term involvement of both biological parents in the difficult and time-consuming task of nurturing the next generation.

The trend toward single-parent families is probably the most important of the recent family trends that have affected children and adolescents (Figure 10). This is because the children in such families have negative life outcomes—including abuse, depression, school failure, and delinquency—at two to three times the rate of children in married, two-parent families.[1] While in 1960, only 9 percent of all children lived in single-parent families, by 2009, the amount had risen to 25 percent. This growth has leveled off in the last decade. The overwhelming majority of single-parent families are mother-only, although the percentage of father-only families has recently grown (to now about 18 percent of all single-parent families).

An indirect indicator of fragile families is the percentage of persons under age 18 living with two married parents. Since 1960, this percentage has declined substantially, by more than 20 percentage points (Figure 11). However, this measure makes no distinction between natural and stepfamilies; it is estimated that some 88 percent of two-parent families consist of both biological parents, while 9 percent are step-families.[2] The distinction is significant, because children in stepfamilies, according to a substantial and growing body of social-science evidence, fare no better in life on average than do children in single-parent families.[3] Data on stepfamilies, therefore, probably would be more reasonably combined with those on single-parent families than those on two-biological-parent families. An important indicator that helps to resolve this issue is the percentage of children who live apart from their biological fathers. That percentage has doubled since 1960, from 17 to 34 percent.[4]

The dramatic shift in family structure indicated by these measures has been generated mainly by three burgeoning trends: divorce, nonmarital childbearing, and unmarried cohabitation. The incidence of divorce began to increase rapidly during the 1960s. The annual number of children under age 18 newly affected by parental divorce—most of whom had lost the benefit of a father in the home—rose from under 500,000 in 1960 to well over a million in 1975.[5] After peaking around 1980, the number leveled off and remains close to a million new children each year. Much of the reason for the leveling off is a drop in average family size; each divorce that occurs today typically affects fewer children than it would have in earlier times.

The second reason for the shift in family structure is an increase in the percentage of babies born to unmarried mothers, which suddenly and unexpectedly began to increase rapidly in the 1970s. Since 1960, the percentage of babies born to unmarried mothers has increased more than eightfold (Figure 12). In 2009 (the latest year for which we have complete data), more than 4 in 10 births and more than two-thirds of black births were to unmarried mothers.

A third and more recent family trend that has affected family structure is the rapid growth of nonmarital cohabitation. Especially as cohabitation has become common among those previously married as well as the young and not-yet-married, there has been about a tenfold increase in the number of cohabiting couples who live with children (Figure 13). Slightly more than 40 percent of all children are expected to spend some time in a cohabiting household during their growing-up years.[6]

In 2000, about 40 percent of unmarried-couple households included one or more children under age 18.[7] Seventy percent of the children in unmarried-couple households are the children of only one partner.[8] Indeed, if one includes cohabitation in the definition of stepfamily, more than one in five stepfamilies today consist of a biological parent and unrelated cohabiting partner.[9]

Children who grow up with cohabiting couples tend to have more negative life outcomes compared to those growing up with married couples.[10 ]Prominent reasons are that cohabiting couples have a much higher breakup rate than do married couples, a lower level of household income, and a higher level of child abuse and domestic violence. The proportion of cohabiting mothers who eventually marry the fathers of their children declined to 44 percent in 1997 from 57 percent a decade earlier—a decline sadly predictive of increased problems for children.[11]


  1. See Mary Parke, Are Married Parents Really Better for Children? (Washington, DC: Center for Law and Social Policy, May 2003); W. Bradford Wilcox et al., Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences (New York: Institute for American Values, 2005).
  2. See Jason Fields, U.S. Census Bureau, “Living Arrangements of Children: Fall, 1996,” Current Population Reports P70–74 (2001). Available online from www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/p20.html.
  3. See Susan L. Brown, “Family Structure and Child Well-Being: The Significance of Parental Cohabitation,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 66 (2004): 351–67. See more generally, David Popenoe, “The Evolution of Marriage and the Problem of Stepfamilies,” in A. Booth and J. Dunn (eds.), Stepfamilies: Who Benefits? Who Does Not? (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994): 3–27.
  4. See Fields, “Living Arrangements.”
  5. Mary Jo Bane, “Children, Divorce, & Welfare,” The Wilson Quarterly (1977) 1: 89–94.
  6. See Sheila Kennedy and Larry Bumpass, “Cohabitation and Children’s Living Arrangements: New Estimates from the United States,” Demographic Research 19 (2008): 1663–92.
  7. See Tavia Simmons and Martin O’Connell, U.S. Census Bureau, “Married-Couple and Unmarried-Partner Households: 2000,” Census 2000 Special Reports, CENSR-5 (2003). Available for download at http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/censr-5.pdf.
  8. Susan L. Brown, “Family Structure”.
  9. Susan L. Brown, “Family Structure”.
  10. See Susan L. Brown, “Family Structure”; Wendy Manning, “The Implications of Cohabitation for Children’s Well-Being,” in A. Booth and A. Crouter (eds.), Just Living Together (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002): 121–52; Robin Fretwell Wilson, “Evaluating Marriage: Does Marriage Matter to the Nurturing of Children?” San Diego Law Review 42 (2005): 848–81; Sandra L. Hofferth, “Residential Father Family Type and Child Well-Being: Investment Versus Selection,” Demography 43 (2006): 53–77.
  11. See Larry Bumpass and Hsien-Hen Lu, “Trends in Cohabitation and Implications for Children’s Family Contexts in the U.S.,” Population Studies 54 (2000): 29–41.