Of the 27 industrialized countries studied by the Organisation
for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. had 25.8 percent
of children being raised by a single parent, compared with an
average of 14.9 percent across the other countries.
Ireland was second (24.3 percent), followed by New Zealand (23.7
percent). Greece, Spain, Italy and Luxemborg had among the lowest
percentages of children in single-parent homes.
Experts point to a variety of factors to explain the high U.S.
figure, including a cultural shift toward greater acceptance of
single-parent child rearing. The U.S. also lacks policies to help
support families, including childcare at work and national paid
maternity leave, which are commonplace in other countries.
"When our parents married, there was a sense that you were
marrying for life," said Edward Zigler, founder and director of
Yale's Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy.
"That sense is not as prevalent."
Single parents in the U.S. were more likely to be employed --
35.8 percent compared to a 21.3 percent average -- but they also had
higher rates of poverty, the report found.
"The in-work poverty is higher in the U.S. than other OECD
countries, because at the bottom end of the labor market, earnings
are very low," said Willem Adema, a senior economist in the
group's social policy division. "For parents, the risk is higher
because they have to make expenditures on childcare costs."
The Paris-based organization looked at a broad sector of
indicators that affected families and children, including childhood
poverty, early education and amount of time spent on parental care.
Across the nations examined, preschool enrollment has grown from
30 to 50 percent between 1998 and 2007. The average enrollment was
58.2 percent, while in the U.S. it was lower.
The report noted that public spending on child welfare and
education is higher in the U.S. than in other countries -- $160,000
per child compared to $149,000. However, the authors say most of
that money is spent after the crucial early childhood years.
"This means early investment -- including childcare and support
for families around the time of birth -- could be strengthened,"
the authors wrote in a separate paper examining the United States.
The study pointed out that the U.S. is the only OECD country
that does not have a national paid parental leave policy. Some
states have started to adopt such policies, but most parents are
offered 12 weeks of unpaid leave. This is particularly difficult
for unwed mothers, who may not be able to afford to take time off,
"We have not built in the kind of national support systems for
families and children that other countries have," he said.
Childhood poverty rates in the U.S. are also expected to climb --
23.5 percent from 20 percent. Adema said the rise is a direct
result of the financial crisis and higher unemployment rates.
"The financial strain causes all sorts of other strain, so
ultimately it might contribute to family dissolution," Adema said.
"At the same time, it might bring some families together. I
suspect that the response differs across families."
The single parent phenomenon has been occurring over recent
decades. The study noted the U.S. and England have higher teenage
birthrates than other countries, partially contributing to the
higher single-parent numbers, though the proportion of children
born outside marriage was not significantly higher than the other
Christina Gibson Davis, a professor at Duke University's Sanford
School of Public Police, said changing gender roles, the rise of
contraception, high incarceration rates in some communities and an
acceptance of having children out of wedlock have all contributed
to the growing number.
Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women,
added it isn't being a single parent in itself that raises
"Single moms do a brilliant and amazing job raising their
children," said Terry O'Neill, president of the National
Organization for Women. "It is also true that single moms in this
country are systemically underpaid, and systematically
under-resourced and systemically unrespected. It's not the fact
they are single moms that makes things difficult."