The Progress of Nations: The Industrial World

Absent fathers linked to economic pressures

Only 10 industrialized nations have recent statistics on the number of children growing up without a father in the home. At the foot of the list is the United States with 21.2% of its children living in solo-mother families. At the opposite end of the scale, only 4.4% of Italian children are in homes without a father.

The steep rise in solo-parent families began in the 1960s, and long-term studies are beginning to reveal the consequences. The most obvious result is a rise in mothers and children living in poverty. In the US, a child living in a solo-mother family is five times as likely to live below the national poverty line, as defined by the Luxembourg Income Study.

When both economic and parenting responsibilities fall on only one pair of shoulders, the strain begins to show up in the statistics. Although many children are happier and better cared for in solo-parent families than in miserable marriages, separation and divorce are nonetheless associated with poorer school performance, greater risk of teen pregnancy, higher rates of delinquency, and a worsening of the mental health of both mothers and children.

The rise in solo-parent families reflects major changes in economic life in the industrialized world. When most families lived and worked on the land, separation was economically difficult, and tightly knit communities censured divorce and out-of-wedlock births. With industrialization, the move to cities, and the rise in paid employment for women, the economic and social barriers to divorce have been weakened. Today, both men and women can leave their homes and families while keeping their jobs and incomes.

In this new situation, economic pressures pull at family ties. Divorce studies in the US have shown that unemployment and low pay increase hostility between husbands and wives. Analysing divorce during the three recessions between 1970 and 1982, Donald J. Hernandez, Chief of Marriage and Family Statistics at the US Bureau of the Census, estimates that recession accounted for about 50% of the increase in divorced or separated mother-only families between 1968 and 1988.


Photo: Many children are born out of the comparative poverty facing large numbers of people even in the world's most economically successful nations.©


Of white children born since 1980 in the US, about 50% will spend some part of their childhood in a singleparent family. For black children the proportion is about 80%. The difference is mostly accounted for by the rise in the number of black children born outside of marriage.

A likely explanation is that economic pressures have borne down more heavily on African-Americans. The difference in unemployment levels between young black men and young white men was almost negligible in 1955. By 1989, it had become a gap of 15 to 25 percentage points.

"The size of this racial gap in joblessness," argues Hernandez, "is at least two thirds the size of the 23 percentage point increase between 1960 and 1988 in the comparative proportions of black and white children living in mother-only families with never-married mothers."


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