Was Moynihan Right? What happens to children of unmarried mothers

January 2015
With Christopher Jencks; EducationNext, Spring 2015, Vol. 15, No. 2
In his 1965 report on the black family, Daniel Patrick Moynihan highlighted the rising fraction of black children growing up in households headed by unmarried mothers. He attributed the increase largely to the precarious economic position of black men, many of whom were no longer able to play their traditional role as their family’s primary breadwinner. Moynihan argued that growing up in homes without a male breadwinner reduced black children’s chances of climbing out of poverty, and that the spread of such families would make it hard for blacks to take advantage of the legal and institutional changes flowing from the civil rights revolution. Moynihan’s claim that growing up in a fatherless family reduced a child’s chances of educational and economic success was furiously denounced when the report appeared in 1965, with many critics calling Moynihan a racist. For the next two decades few scholars chose to investigate the effects of father absence, lest they too be demonized if their findings supported Moynihan’s argument. Fortunately, America’s best-known black sociologist, William Julius Wilson, broke this taboo in 1987, providing a candid assessment of the black family and its problems in The Truly Disadvantaged. Since then, social scientists have accumulated a lot more evidence on the effects of family structure. This article will offer some educated guesses about what that evidence means. Read the RESEARCH BRIEF below.

More than Half of All Children in the U.S. Will Likely Live with an Unmarried Mother, Study Finds

More than half of all American children will likely live with an unmarried mother at some point before they reach age 18, according to a report issued by Princeton University and Harvard University.

The absence of a biological father increases the likelihood that a child will exhibit antisocial behaviors like aggression, rule-breaking and delinquency, the researchers report in the journal EducationNext. This finding – which holds true regardless of a child's race – is especially prevalent among young boys. As a result, these children are 40 percent less likely to finish high school or attend college.

Researchers Sara McLanahan of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Christopher Jencks of Harvard wrote their report to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the controversial "Moynihan Report," a 1965 study by sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who later served as a New York senator) that argued that growing up in homes without a male breadwinner led to a life of poverty, unemployment and crime, especially for African Americans. McLanahan and Jencks are among some of the first researchers to examine the trends Moynihan projected since his report was furiously denounced in the '60s.

The researchers found that since 1965, the percentage of children raised by unmarried mothers has risen from 25 to 50 percent among blacks, and 7 to 19 percent among whites. ("Unmarried" mothers are defined only by marital status, not whether the mother lives with a partner.)

However, the racial makeup of single-mother families has not changed much over time. In 1970, 31 percent of single-mother families were black, 68 percent were white and 1 percent were "other race." In 2013, the figures were 30 percent black, 62 percent white and 8 percent "other." Evidence on the impact of these trends comes from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study, pioneered by McLanahan, which is following a cohort of nearly 5,000 children born in large American cities between 1998 and 2000.

In the past five decades, the meaning of single motherhood has changed dramatically, McLanahan and Jencks write. Single mothers today are far less likely than their predecessors to have ever been married. Now, single motherhood usually occurs earlier in a child's life, or even at the very beginning. It is not uncommon for women to be single when their first child is born. Also, the high rate of partner turnover during a mother's peak fertility years means that children now experience multiple men entering and exiting their lives.

"Both the departure of a father and the arrival of a mother's new partner disrupt family routines and are stressful for most children, regardless of whether the father was married to the mother or just living with her," said McLanahan, director of the Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. "Likewise, this shift to never-married motherhood has probably weakened the economic and emotional ties between children and their absent fathers."

Another change is that unmarried motherhood has spread fastest among mothers who have not completed college. For blacks, the number of children living with a mother who lacks a high school diploma has increased from 56 percent in 1980 to 66 percent in 2010. For whites, the percentage of children whose mothers lack a high school degree has remained essentially unchanged, hovering at around 18 percent between 1980 and 2010. 

The official poverty rate in 2013 among all families with children was 40 percent if the family was headed by an unmarried mother and only 8 percent if the family was headed by a married couple. Among blacks, the rates were 46 percent in single-mother families and 12 percent in married-parent families. Among Hispanics, the figures were 47 percent and 18 percent, and among whites the rates were 32 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

"The fact that single motherhood is increasing faster among women with less than a college degree means that children growing up with a single mother are likely to be doubly disadvantaged," said McLanahan. "They spend less time and receive less money from their biological fathers than children who live with their fathers. At the same time, the mother – who is now the primary breadwinner – has lower earnings than the typical mother in a married-parent family."

Changing the current dynamic will be difficult, the authors write. It would require giving less-educated women incentives to invest in education and careers and to use more reliable contraceptive methods, McLanahan and Jencks said. At the same time, the economic prospects of the young men who father the children also must improve.

"None of this will be easy," McLanahan said. "But it would improve the lives of the men in question, perhaps reduce their level of antisocial behavior and improve the lives of their children, through all the benefits that flow from a stable home."

The article, "Was Moynihan right? What happens to the children of unmarried mothers," was published Dec. 9 by EducationNext, a journal of opinion and research.