Single Parents Aren’t the Problem

Show Me the Numbers: Who's at home doesn't affect a child's education as much as you may think.

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(The Root) — Do black children have natural disadvantages in school because most are from single-parent homes? Recently, comedian Bill Cosby chided the “apathy” he observed among black parents. He, like many others, believes that the fading presence of the black nuclear family places black children at a social disadvantage and creates a burden on society.

The link between father absence and community dissonance among black people was postulated almost 50 years ago in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Moynihan Report. Since then, the percentage of black children being raised in single-parent homes has grown from 20 percent to nearly 70 percent, according to data from the American Community Survey.

In the United States, 31 percent of black children have both a mother and a father in the home; 53 percent have only a mother present; 7 percent have only a father present; and 9 percent have neither parent present. These figures have been represented in various ways in the media to portray a single-parent crisis in the black community.

At 28 percent, the percentage of white children in single-parent homes has grown to exceed the figure that originally caused Sen. Daniel Moynihan’s consternation for black families in 1965. In fact, the U.S. has nearly 4 million more white children in single-parent households than black children. If white families did not have children out of wedlock, divorce or abandon their children, the total population of children in single-parent, and no-parent, homes would reduce by nearly 40 percent.

By comparison, black people account for 25 percent of the total population of children in single-parent homes. The percentage of black children in single-parent homes is more than twice the percentage of whites. However, in the context of social impact, total incidents are unequivocally more important than within group percentages.

I make these observations not to deflect responsibility or to be contentious but to, first, challenge the narrative that single-parent households among black people are the most common in society and, second, question the audacity of people from outside the black community to criticize black families while ignoring their own race’s contributions to their perceived social ills. If single-parent homes are a burden to the U.S., white families account for the heaviest drag of all races.

However, I did not write this article to advocate for sharing the burden of single-parent homes. Rather, the purpose of this article is to assess the premise that single-parent homes are, in fact, a burden. Across all races, the U.S. has more than 27.7 million children who currently reside in single-parent or no-parent (children in state custody, and those being raised by nonparent guardians) homes.

For this entry of Show Me the Numbers, the Journal of Negro Education’s  monthly series with The Root, I examine the educational prospects of children being raised in nontraditional family units, and what schools and communities can do to support black parents in general.

Do black children from two-parent homes perform better in school?

In a superficial view of the numbers, black children from two-parent households have academic advantages over black children from single-parent homes. For example, the National Household Education Surveys-Parent and Family Involvement Survey found that black students from two-parent homes reported an average grade-point average of 3.1, those from mother-only homes reported a 3.0, father-only homes reported a 2.9 and no-parent homes reported a 2.7.

I also used Health Behaviors in School-Age Children to determine the impact of fathers on the academic success of young black males. Among black male middle and high school students who had a father present, 62 percent reported good or very good grades, compared with 55 percent for students with no father present. Among the students who reported not having their mother or father in the home, fewer than half reported making good or very good grades in school.