In the U.S., Nearly a Quarter of All Children Live with an Unmarried Mother

Sara McLanahan:, Princeton University
Christopher Jencks:, Harvard University
Ashley Inman:, (707) 332-1184, Education Next Communications Office

In the U.S., Nearly a Quarter of All Children Live with an Unmarried Mother

50 years after the Moynihan Report, the percentage of children in mother-only families has risen from around 25% to 50% among blacks, and around 7% to 19% among whites.

2015 is the 50th anniversary year of the publication of “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Otherwise known as The Moynihan Report after its author, then assistant labor secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the report identified a rising percentage of black children being raised in households headed by unmarried mothers. Now in a new article for Education Next,Was Moynihan Right? What happens to children of unmarried mothers,” eminent scholars Sara McLanahan of Princeton University and Christopher Jencks of Harvard University look at changes in family structure for both blacks and whites over the past 50 years, and note its effect on the educational attainment and other life outcomes of the children raised in single parent families.

Five years before Moynihan’s report was released in 1965, roughly 20% of black children and about 5% of white children lived in families headed by an unmarried mother. These percentages rose rapidly over the next two decades, reaching about 50% among blacks and 15% among whites by the early 1980s. By 2013, the last year for which comparable data is available, the percentages were 50% and 19% respectively.

Roughly 70% of all black births were to unmarried mothers by 1990, and the figure has hovered near 70% since then. However, looking at the U.S. as a whole, the racial makeup of single-mother families has not changed very much over time. In 1970, 31% of single-mother families were black, 68% were white, and 1% were “other race.” In 2013, the figures were 30% black, 62% white, and 8% “other.” (In these data, Hispanics can be of any race.)

Growing up in homes without a male breadwinner, Moynihan argued, fostered a life of poverty, unemployment, crime, and serious educational disadvantage. Updating his findings, McLanahan and Jencks report that “A father’s absence lowers children’s educational attainment, not by altering their scores on cognitive tests, but by disrupting their social and emotional adjustment and reducing their ability or willingness to exercise self-control.” They find that growing up without one’s biological father increases antisocial behavior such as aggression, rule breaking, delinquency, and illegal drug use. Children growing up with a single mother are exposed to more family instability and complexity, have more behavior problems, and are less likely to finish high school or attend college. Other research has found that effects are larger for boys than for girls.

Unmarried motherhood has spread fastest among mothers who have not completed college, their study finds. In black families where the mother has no high school diploma, the percentage of children living with a single mother increased from 56% in 1980 to 66% in 2010. The percentage of white children in single-mother families where the mother does not have a high school degree has remained essentially unchanged at about 18 percent, but has increased from 10% to 21% for those families where the mother has a high school diploma (but not a college degree). Children from such families are doubly disadvantaged compared to children from two-parent families: they have only one breadwinner and that breadwinner—the mother—typically earns less than the primary breadwinner in a two-parent family (who is typically the father). The official poverty rate in 2013 among all U.S. families with children was 40% if the family was headed by an unmarried mother as compared to 8% if the family was headed by a married couple.

Changing the current dynamic, say the authors, would require giving less-educated women incentives to invest in education and careers, and to use more reliable contraceptive methods. At the same time, the economic prospects of the young men who father the children must improve. The authors acknowledge that this will not be easy, but would improve the lives of all.

In a separate Education Next article, Brown University historian James T. Patterson provides a compelling account of the context and the content of, as well as the firestorm of conflict that surrounded the release of the Moynihan report.

Was Moynihan Right? What happens to children of unmarried mothers” by Sara McLanahan and Christopher Jencks, and “Moynihan and the Single Parent Family: The 1965 report and its backlash” by James T. Patterson will appear in the Spring 2015 issue of Education Next and are available now on

About the Authors

Sara McLanahan is professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. Christopher Jencks is professor of social policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
James T. Patterson is professor of history emeritus at Brown University and author of Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974 (Oxford University Press, 1996).

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit:

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