One-parent families on rise around world, mirroring demographic shifts in U.S.

Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2001

WASHINGTON -- It's not just an American phenomenon: Across the globe, single-parent homes are on the rise.

The number of one-parent families increased from England to Australia during the 1990s, mirroring demographic shifts reported in the U.S. census.

And just as was the case in America, those shifts are raising questions about how much help government should provide single-parent families, which often are less well-off financially than families headed by a married couple.

Should single parents get tax breaks to help pay for child care? Should employers be monitored to make sure flexible work hours are offered?

Annie Oliver, a 32-year-old single mother from Bristol, England, thinks so.

''You wouldn't believe how becoming a single parent suddenly made me a second-class citizen,'' said Oliver, who struggles to keep a full-time job and care for her disabled son.

British policy-makers, she says, are doing little to help, despite statistics that show the number of single-parent homes in Great Britain increasing during the past decade.

Around the world, most children younger than 18 still are raised in homes headed by married parents. In the United States, the 2000 census showed that 24.8 million, or nearly 24 percent of the nation's 105.5 million households, were the traditional ''Ozzie and Harriet'' home with married parents and children.

By comparison, 9.8 million households, or 9 percent of all U.S. households, were headed by a man or woman raising a child alone or without a spouse living at home.

In the 1990 census, 26 percent of homes were headed by a married mother and father, and 8 percent by a single parent.

Similar increases in single-parent homes occurred in other countries, though data from those countries are not directly comparable to U.S. census figures because of differences in methodology.

In the United Kingdom, lone-parent family homes increased from 3.3 percent of all households in 1990 to 5.5 percent in 1999, according to data compiled by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It did not specify whether children in those homes where younger than 18.

Single parent households in Australia rose from 5.8 percent in 1990 to 7.6 percent in 1999.

Other countries with the largest increases include:

Belgium, 1.8 percent of households in 1990 to 2.7 percent in 1999;

Ireland, 1.8 percent to 2.8 percent;

Luxembourg, 1.3 percent to 2.2 percent.

Single-parent homes increase most often in countries where the nuclear family -- just Mom, Dad and the kids -- is more common than an extended, multigenerational family living under one roof, said demographer Martha Farns-worth Riche, a former head of the Census Bureau.

Those countries tend to have greater acceptance of single parenting since there are fewer nearby family members to disapprove, Riche said.

Lone-parent family households in Japan increased from 5.1 percent in 1990 to just 5.2 percent in 1999. Rates were relatively unchanged during the same period in Greece, Italy and Portugal.

These countries tend to think more conservatively about family makeup, Riche said, and there is more pressure to avoid divorce or unmarried parenthood.

Worldwide, most single parent homes are headed by women. In the United States, estimates this week from the Census 2000 Supplementary Survey show that six of 10 families living in poverty were headed by a woman living with a child and no husband.

''The position of one-parent families in any given country is very much a gender issue -- women's opportunities, especially working-class women on low income,'' said Sue Cohen, coordinator of the Single Action Parents Network in England.


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