Single Parents Aren't the Problem

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Generic image (Thinkstock)

(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.

Finally, I used the ACS to determine whether household composition had an impact on black males' persistence through grade school. About 7.7 percent of black males from two-parent homes were severely off-track (more than two grade levels behind) by the time they reached the ninth grade, compared with 10.6 percent among those from mother-headed households.


Interestingly, black males in households with only a mother were significantly more likely to be on-track academically than black males in households with a father only. Contrarily, black females in households with a father only were more likely to be academically on-track than those in households with a mother only. Black children from households with neither a mother nor a father were twice as likely to be severely off-track when compared with black children from two- and one-parent households.

However, as a single variable, household composition carries little weight and appears to serve as a proxy for more serious issues, such as teenage pregnancy and incarcerated parents. In analyses, a myriad of covariants (e.g. parents' education and parent practices) nullify the effects of household composition on academic progress cited in the previous section. For example, in my analysis of the High School Longitudinal Survey, a black student from a two-parent household with just one parent who dropped out of high school was three times more likely to repeat a grade in school than a student from a single-parent household where the primary caregiver had an associate's degree or higher. I will explain factors that supersede the contribution of household composition to academic success in my next column.


We often overstate and exaggerate the drawbacks of being raised by a single parent. At the same time, we ignore the real and persistent disadvantages of the nearly 1 million black children being raised by noncustodial parents. In addition, without much evidence, context or specificity, we make sweeping assumptions about why black boys need a father in the home. At the same time, we ignore the important role that black fathers play in the lives of daughters and that black mothers play in the lives of sons.

In many ways, the focus on single-parent households has distracted us from more legitimate indicators of risk and has created disobliging attitudes toward black parents and students. Although a larger number of white children from single-parent homes exist, many argue that the impact is not as severe because single white mothers typically receive more child support and alimony than single black mothers.


While this is a fair assessment, it is important not to confuse affluence with responsibility. Paying a part-time nanny to pick up your child from school so you can work late, hiring a tutor when your child makes a C in math and paying for test-prep classes does not make you a more responsible parent; it makes you more financially capable. By contrast, I admire and empathize with the single parents who spend hours and days fighting schools that try to suspend their children under misguided zero-tolerance policies, who confront teachers who give unsolicited and unqualified mental-health diagnoses and who challenge administrators who try to track their children into special-education classes.

We will never fully understand the contributions of black parents through pedestrian comparisons, stereotypes, arrogance and condescension. Frequent communication with parents helps us support a variety of people who want more for their children than they ever had, even if they don't fully understand what that means or how to get there. In the next column we will examine what schools need from black parents, and what black parents need from schools to improve academic success among black students.


Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is a tenured associate professor at Howard University, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education and contributing education editor at The Root . He can be contacted at Follow him on Twitter.

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Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of the QEM Network, a professor at Howard University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education. Previously, Toldson was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He also served as senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and contributing education editor for The Root, where he debunked some of the most pervasive myths about African Americans in his Show Me the Numbers column. Follow him on Twitter.