Single parents were very common in the 17th and 18th centuries. The most common cause: death of a parent. Approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of all children in this era experienced the death of a parent during childhood.
Since then, medical advances and improvements in sanitation and maternal care have significantly reduced mortality of people in reproductive age. Thankfully, the death of a parent is now a much less common cause of single parenting. Divorce, accidental pregnancies and single parenting by choice are now the leading reasons for the rising number of single parents.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2014):
- 17% of children aged 0-14 live in single parent households worldwide
- Women head approximately 88% of these households
- Contrary to popular belief, the majority of single parents are employed
Countries with the highest percentage of children aged 0-14 living with a single parent (OECD, 2014)
The largest increases in single parent households have been in industrialized countries. Denmark and the United Kingdom have the highest percentage of single parents. The highest percentages of single fathers were in Denmark, Sweden, France and the US, although single mothers far outnumber them.
Single parents in the United States
Single parents have more than tripled as a share of American households since 1960.
According to the 2016 census:
- 27% of children under 18 live in single parent households in the US
- 80% of these households are headed by single mothers
- More than 23% of American children are being raised without a father
- 4% of children are raised without their mother
Two-thirds of American single parent households are white, 1/3 are African-American and 1/4 are Hispanic. One-third have a college degree and 1/6 have not completed high school.
Marital status of American single mothers:
- 49% were never married
- 30% are divorced
- 17% are separated
- 3.5% are widowed
- 42% have one child and 32% have two children.
Marital status of American single fathers:
- 38% were never married
- 40% of single fathers are divorced
- 16% are separated
- 6% are widowed
- 56% have one child and 29% have two children
Single fathers are more likely to be divorced than single mothers, who are more likely to never have been married.
Single parents in Canada
According to the 2016 census, 19.2% of all Canadian children live with single parents. Of these, 81.3% of these children live with their mothers and 18.7% live with their fathers.
The likelihood of living with a single parent family increases with the child’s age:
- 12.1% of children younger than 1 year of age were living in a single parent family, and 87.1% were living with their mother.
- 22.8% of children aged 10-14 years were living with a single parent. Among this older group of children, 79.4% were living with their mother and 20.6% with their father.
In 2016, there were significant differences among the provinces and territories in the proportions of children living in a single parent family. In general, immigrants to Canada are less likely than non‑immigrants to have children outside marriage or to get divorced. The provinces of Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario have attracted more immigrants in the past than other regions of Canada and therefore have lower percentages of children living in single parent households.
Percentage of children living in single parent families by province
- Nova Scotia: 26%
- New Brunswick: 24.3%
- Nunavut: 23.9%
- Yukon: 23%
- Northwest Territories: 22.3%
- Prince Edward Island: 22.1%
- Newfoundland and Labrador: 22.1%
- Saskatchewan: 22.1%
- Manitoba: 20.9%
- Quebec: 19.6%
- Ontario: 19%
- British Columbia: 17.8%
- Alberta: 16.1%
Rising numbers of single parents
The number of single parent households is rising, especially in industrialized countries. Single parenting is typically more socially acceptable in industrialized nations. Families in developing countries sometimes live in multigenerational households and may also only have one parent living with them.
However, higher reported percentages of single parents in industrialized countries could be due to under-representation of single parents in reports from developing countries. Many industrialized countries had no available data in the OECD report including Norway, Belgium, New Zealand, Iceland and Finland, which also under-represents of single parents.
Considering that almost one-third of children in many countries are raised by single mothers, it is relatively difficult to find detailed data on single parents trends and statistics, whether it be worldwide or nationally.