Conservative talk-show host Bill O’Reilly and America’s sweetheart Jennifer Aniston found themselves tangled up in the culture wars this week, replaying a decades-old debate that reached fever pitch back in 1992 when then-Vice President Dan Quayle lambasted sitcom Murphy Brown for depicting a woman having a child out of wedlock.
While promoting her new movie, The Switch, about a 40-year-old unmarried woman who turns to artificial insemination to become a mother, Aniston, 41 and single, celebrated the fact that women “don’t have to settle with a man just to have that child,” prompting O’Reilly to call her comments “destructive to our society.”
On Friday, Aniston hit back, saying, “Of course, the ideal scenario for parenting is obviously two parents of a mature age,” before adding, “but for those who’ve not yet found their Bill O’Reilly, I’m just glad science has provided a few other options.” Zing!
So who's right? The Daily Beast sifts through the vast literature to find the most surprising and complex statistics about single-parent households.
1. Children from a two-parent, married, biological household do the best.
On average, the most advantageous household makeup is the traditional nuclear family, where children are living with their married, biological parents. Married stepparents are the next best thing, as kids living in a household with cohabiting, unmarried stepparents tend to do worse than those in a married step-family setting. Child well-being is most often measured by progress and performance in school, delinquency, substance abuse, depression, employment, and early or casual sexual activity.
2. Lesbian households fare just as well.
In June, a quarter-century worth of data showed that children born to lesbian couples do just as well, if not better, than the rest of the population, throwing a wrench into O’Reilly’s argument that “dads bring a psychology to children that is, in this society, I believe, underemphasized.”
3. Single moms have a slight edge over unmarried stepparents.
Teenagers raised by single mothers do about as well as those raised by cohabiting, unmarried stepparents. In fact, teens living under a single-mother household displayed fewer instances of delinquency and better grades than those in unmarried step-households.
4. Economic resources are the most important factor in child welfare.
The social science on child welfare overwhelmingly shows that economic resources are the main determinant of child well-being. Median adjusted per capita incomes for single-parent households is half that of married households. For cohabiting families, the median adjusted income is 65 percent of that of married households. Female-headed households are five times more likely to be living in poverty than married households, and male-headed households are 2.5 times more likely to be in poverty than married households. While single-parent households typically mean a halving of resources, women like Aniston could no doubt provide well enough on their own.
5. Money versus love
The high-school dropout rate for children of divorce is 31 percent, 37 percent for children born to unmarried parents, and 13 percent for children whose parents are married. In single-mother households, lack of economic resources is to blame for poor performance in school. In single-father households, it’s a lack of interpersonal interaction. After economic resources, the second biggest influence on child well-being is quality of parenting in terms of warmth and affection.
6. An absent father doesn’t mean that mother-child interactions are worse off.
A recent study published by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy showed that a cohabiting environment doesn’t significantly improve a child’s interactions with his or her mother. “Given few differences between biological cohabiting and single-mother (i.e. divorced or never-married) households, [the study’s] results do not suggest that lower-quality mother-child interactions arise simply because a family lacks a biological father.”
7. Marriage doesn’t equal family stability.
A two-parent household doesn't guarantee security; another major factor in child welfare is family stability. “Family turbulence can be moving a lot, parents having lots of changes in their health or employment,” not to mention a hostile home environment, says Wendy Manning, a professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University. In addition, some children whose parents divorce amicably are able to adjust and cope well with changes in family structure and don’t necessarily end up worse off. Meta-analyses also show that the effects of divorce on a child’s welfare are on the modest rather than strong side.
8. The rise of the single-family household
Between 1970 and 2002, children living in two-parent households fell by 16 percent while the proportion of children living in single-family households more than doubled from 11 to 27 percent.
9. Single fathers are the fastest-growing family types.
Single-father families are largely the result of divorce, whereas single-mother families are largely the result of a child being born to an unmarried mother, according to Manning.
10. Marriage increases men’s salaries between 5 and 10 percent.
After controlling for education and work experience, married men can earn on average up to 10 percent more than never-married or divorced men. Half of these instances are accounted for by “ selection,” meaning that men with higher earning power are more likely to be selected as marriage partners. However, the other half is caused directly by marriage.
11. Societal attitudes toward single-parent households remain negative.
Though critical depictions of divorce in media and academia fell in the last century, critical attitudes toward single-parent childbearing did not. A survey by the Journal of Marriage and Family showed that a majority of depictions in magazines and journals discussed the harmful effects of single-parent families.
Joyce Tang is a writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, Double X, and The Miami Herald.