Both mothers and fathers play important roles in the growth and development of children. The number and the type of parents (e.g., biological, step) in the household, as well as the relationship between the parents, are strongly linked to a child’s well-being.1 (Nationally representative data on adoptive families are relatively new, and warrant a separate treatment.2)
Among young children, for example, those living with no biological parents or in single-parent households are less likely than children with two biological parents to exhibit behavioral self-control, and more likely to be exposed to high levels of aggravated parenting, than are children living with two biological parents.3 Children living with two married adults (biological or adoptive parents) have, in general, better health, greater access to health care, and fewer emotional or behavioral problems than children living in other types of families.4 Among children in two-parent families, those living with both biological parents in a low-conflict marriage tend to do better on a host of outcomes than those living in step-parent families. Outcomes for children in step-parent families are in many cases similar to those for children growing up in single-parent families.5,6 Children whose parents are divorced also have lower academic performance, social achievement, and psychological adjustment than children with married parents.7 Reliance on kin networks (for example, living with grandparents) can provide social and financial support for some families, particularly single-parent families. However, the evidence suggests that children living in households with their single mothers in some cases fare better, and in other cases worse, when also living with a grandparent.8
Single-parent families tend to have much lower incomes than do two-parent families, while cohabiting families fall in-between. Research indicates, however, that the income differential only partially accounts for the negative effects on many areas of child and youth well-being (including health, educational attainment and assessments, behavior problems, and psychological well-being) associated with living outside of a married, two-parent family.9,10
Between 1960 and 1996, the proportion of all children under age 18 who were living with two married parents decreased steadily, from 85 to 68 percent. This share was stable during much of the late 1990s and into the 2000s, but by 2012 it had decreased to 64 percent. (Figure 1)
In 1960, the proportion of children living in mother-only families was eight percent, but by 1996 that proportion had tripled, to 24 percent. Since then, it has fluctuated between 22 and 24 percent, and was at 24 percent in 2012. Between 1990 and 2012, the share of children living in father-only families has fluctuated between three and five percent, and was at four percent in 2012. The proportion living without either parent (with either relatives or with non-relatives) has remained steady at approximately four percent. (Figure 1)
In 2012, six percent of all children lived in the home of their grandparents. In two thirds of these families, one or both parents were also present. This proportion increased until the mid-1990s, from three to six percent of children. After remaining at around five percent until 2006, the proportion has increasing since then. (Appendix 2)
Differences by Race and Hispanic Origin11
Black children are significantly less likely than other children to be living with two married parents. In 2012, 33 percent of black children were living with two parents, compared with 82 percent of Asian children, 70 percent of white children, and 59 percent of Hispanic children. (Figure 2)
Most children who live with just one parent, regardless of race or Hispanic origin, live with their mothers. More than half of all black children, and more than one quarter of all Hispanic children, live with their mothers only; among white and Asian children, smaller proportions (about one in five, and one in ten, respectively) live with their mothers only. (Figure 2)
In 2012, seven percent of all black children did not live with either parent, compared with three percent each of white and Hispanic children, and two percent of Asian children. (Figure 2)
In 2012 there were 3.2 million unmarried cohabiting couples with children under eighteen. This number has been steadily increasing: in 1996, there were 1.2 million. However, the number of all unmarried couples (with or without children) has increased even more during the same time period. (Figure 3)
Nearly half of parents in cohabiting couples with children are between 25 and 34 years old, and another quarter are between 35 and 44 years old. Among women in cohabiting couples, 18 percent have no high school diploma, and another 34 percent have no college-level education. Fifty-nine percent of women and 78 percent of men in cohabiting couples with children are employed. However, in 11 percent of these couples, neither person was employed in 2012. (Appendix 3)
State and Local Estimates
State and local estimates of children’s living arrangements are available from the KIDS COUNT Data Center
Federal welfare reform under the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996,” specifically encouraged the promotion of marriage and two-parent families as a means of reducing welfare dependence. For additional information see the US Health and Human Services website.
For this indicator, unless otherwise specified, a two-parent family refers to parents who are married to each other and living in the same household. They may be biological, adoptive, or stepparents. The Current Population Survey identifies all parents who are family or subfamily heads. Where cohabitants are concerned, however, the CPS does not ask whether that person is also the parent of the child. Single-parent families refer primarily to families in which only one parent is present, but may include some families where both parents are present but unmarried. No-parent families refer to families where neither parent of the child lives in the household. Data about children living with grandparents reflect those living in households headed by their grandparents. Parents may or may not be present in such cases.
Data for 2012 cohabiting couples: Child Trends calculations of U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement. "America's Families and Living Arrangements". Table UC3. Available at: http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/.html
All other Data for 2008-2012: Child Trends calculations of U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement. "America's Families and Living Arrangements". Tables C-2, C-3. Available at: http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/.html
Data for non-Hispanic white and Asian children, 2000-2007: Child Trends calculations of U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement. "America's Families and Living Arrangements". Tables C-2, C-3. Available at: http://www.census.gov/hhes/families/data/cps2000.html
Other Data for 1960-2007: Child Trends calculations using: Living Arrangements of Children Under 18 Years Old: 1960 to Present. Tables CH-1, CH-2, CH-3, CH-4, and Ch-7. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Online. Available: http://www.census.gov/hhes/families/data/children.html
Raw Data Sources
March Current Population Survey, a joint project of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau.http://www.bls.census.gov/cps/cpsmain.htm
U.S. Decennial Census http://www.census.gov/main/www/cen2000.html
Recommended citation: Child Trends (2013). Family Structure. Retrieved from http://www.childtrendsdatabank.org/?q=node/231
Last update: March 2013
1Amato, P. R. (2005). The impact of family formation change on the cognitive, social, and emotional well-being of the next generation. The Future of Children, 15(2), 75-96.
2For a first nationally representative look at adopted children and their families, see: Vandivere, S., Malm, K., and Radel, L. Adoption USA: A chartbook based on the National Survey of Adoptive Parents. Washington, DC: Child Trends. Available at http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/09/NSAP/chartbook/.
3Manning, W. D. and Lamb, K. A. (2003). Adolescent well-being in cohabiting, married, and single-parent families. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 65(4), 876-893.
4Blackwell, D. L. (2010). Family structure and children’s health in the United States: Findings from the National Health Interview Survey, 2001-2007. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Statistics, 10(246).
5Moore, K. A., Jekielek, S. M., and Emig, C. (2002). Marriage from a child’s perspective: How does family structure affect children, and what can we do about it? (Research Brief). Washington, DC: Child Trends. Available at: http://www.childtrends.org/Files/MarriageRB602.pdf
6Manning, W. D. and Lamb, K. A. (2003). Op. cit.
7Amato, P. R., (2001). The consequences of divorce for adults and children. In Robert M. Milardo (ed.), Understanding Families into the New Millennium: A Decade in Review. (Lawrence, KS: National Council on Family Relations), 488-506.
8Dunifon, R. & Kowaleski-Jones, L. (2007). The influence of grandparents in single-mother families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69(2), 465-48.
9Brown, S. L. (2004). Family structure and child well-being: The significance of parental cohabitation. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 66(2), 351-67.
10The Urban Institute. (2006). Parents and children facing a world of risk: Next steps towards a working families agenda. Available at: http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/311288_parents_and_children.pdf
11Hispanics can be any race. Estimates for whites do not include Hispanics.