Poverty and the American Family

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Change in the structure of families over the past 40 years has likely contributed to higher poverty rates. As shown below, between 1959 and 2009, the percent of families that were headed by a single parent, whether male or female, nearly tripled (from 11% in 1959 to 33% in 2009). Though the percentage of single father families has increased considerably, 78% of families with a single parent were headed by women in 2009.

Single parent families are economically vulnerable for the simple reason that most of them have only one wage earner. Families headed by single mothers are especially at risk of poverty because of lower wages paid to women generally. In 2009, men (over age 25) in full-time jobs were earning $162 more per week on average, than women of the same age who were also in full-time jobs. (1) Put another way, women’s weekly earnings ($657) were about 80% of men’s weekly earnings ($819).

Another factor that increases the economic vulnerability of female headed households is the difficulty of enforcing child support laws, particularly for never married mothers. In 2003, for example, about 77% of mothers who were custodial parents and to whom child support had been awarded reported receiving some amount of child support. However, less than half (45.2%) received the full amount (2).


These factors combine to create a substantial economic disadvantage for families headed by single mothers, as shown below. The median income for female-headed families was just $32,597 in 2009. The median for married couple families was more than double that amount ($71,830).



How Do Single Parents Fare?

Not surprisingly, families with only one parent were more likely to be poor in 2009, and poverty among single mothers was particularly high. Whereas 8.3% of married couple families (with related children under 18) and 23.7% of single fathers were living in poverty, nearly four in ten (38.5%) single-mother families were poor.



The relationship between poverty and family structure becomes more pronounced when we examine the distribution of family types among all families and poor families, as shown in the figure below. Although only 25% of all families with related children under age 18 were headed by a woman (without a husband present), about 57% of poor families with children were headed by single mothers in 2009. Married couple families make up two-thirds (67%) of all families, but represent only one-third (32.6%) of poor families.

(1) Bureau of Labor Statistics, Highlights of Women's Earnings in 2009.
(2) U.S. Census Bureau, "Custodial Mothers and Fathers and their Child Support: 2003"