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Journal Issue: Children and Divorce Volume 4 Number 1 Spring/Summer 1994

Epidemiology of Divorce
Patricia H. Shiono Linda Sandham Quinn

Living Arrangements of Children

The changes in the marriage, divorce, and remarriage rates over the past 70 years have had a profound effect on the living arrangements of children. A growing number of children are being raised by single parents or by stepparents. In 1990, there were 64.1 million children under 18 in the United States; the vast majority (45.2 million, or 70.5%) lived in two-parent households (Figure 4).6 Most children (37 million, or 57.7%) lived with their biological parents, 11.3% (7.2 million) lived in married stepfamilies, and 1.5% (1 million) lived with adoptive parents. Approximately one quarter of the children lived in single-parent households; 9.5% (6 million) with a divorced, single parent, 7.7% (4.9 million) lived with a never-married parent, 7.6% and (4.9 million) lived with a separated or widowed parent, and 4.7% (3 million) lived in a house with no parent present.

Trends in the Living Arrangements of Children

In spite of the changes in family structure in the United States over the past 50 years, the vast majority of children continue to live in two-parent families. In 1940, 85% of children lived in two-parent families, 70% lived in an intact (biological or adoptive) two-parent family, and the remaining 15% lived in two-parent stepfamilies. In spite of the increasing divorce rates in the 1960s and 1970s, a large majority of children in 1988 still lived in two-parent families (71%), and a majority (58%) still lived in intact two-parent families. However, since the 1970s, there has been a large increase in the proportion of children living with never-married mothers (from 1.1% in 1970 to 6.7% in 1988) or divorced mothers (from 3.5% in 1970 to 7.8% in 1988).

Trends in the composition of families for children living with one parent also have changed dramatically over time (Figure 5).1 In 1940, approximately 40% of children in one-parent families lived with widowed mothers, and very few children lived with never-married mothers. Between 1940 and 1960, as separation and divorce became more common, so did the number of children in one-parent families with a separated or divorced mother.

After 1960, the proportion of children in one-parent families with a never-married mother increased greatly, from 3.4% in 1960 to 28.2% in 1988. At the same time, there were large declines in death rates among married men so, by 1988, only 5% of children in one-parent families lived with widowed mothers. Therefore, as households headed by widowed women decreased over the years, there was a simultaneous increase in the proportion of children living with never-married mothers. The proportion of children in father-only families has decreased slightly over the years, and fathers' marital status has shifted from mainly widowed to mainly separated and divorced.

Living Arrangements of Children by Ethnic Group

There have been large changes in the living arrangements of American children in one-parent families by ethnic group. In the past 50 years, the proportion of white children living with a divorced or separated mother has been increasing. Among white families, the rapidly decreasing proportion of children living with widowed mothers has gradually been replaced by increases in the proportions of children living with single mothers (Figure 6).1 In contrast, the biggest change in living arrangements for African-American children has been the exponential growth in the proportion living with never-married mothers. Prior to the 1960s, only 4% of African-American children lived with never-married mothers. This proportion increased to 16% in 1970 and in 1988 has become the most common form of living arrangement for African-American children (52%). (There are no comparable data about Hispanic families.)

Number of Children Affected by Divorce

The trends over time in the number of children affected by divorce generally followed the changes in the divorce rates (Figure 7).9 However, decrease in family size, the increasing number of births to single women, and the shorter duration of marriage all modify the relationship between divorce rates and the number of children affected by divorce. Each year prior to the 1960s, fewer than 400,000 children were affected by divorce. As the number of divorces rose in the late 1960s, so did the number of children affected by divorce. The number of children affected by divorce during the 1960s and 1970s rose dramatically and was generally higher than the number of divorces because the average families that divorced in that era had more than one child. In later years, the number of children affected by divorce was lower than the number of divorces because of the slight decline in the divorce rates and the smaller number of children in the families. By the late 1970s, more than one million children under age 18 were affected by divorce each year.

The Emergence of Divorced-Father-Custody Families

Since the 1970s, there has been an emergence of divorced-father families. Divorced-father families are increasing at a faster rate than divorced-mother families.11 This phenomenon occurred with the changes in custody laws during the 1970s which made them more gender neutral. Custody (legal and/or physical) would not be automatically given to the mother, but could also be given to the father. Changes in custody laws have had a major influence in the living arrangements of the children of divorce. During the 1940s and 1950s, of all children in the United States only one or two children per 1,000 lived with their fathers after a divorce. With the changes in child custody laws, there has been a tenfold increase in children living with their fathers after divorce; in 1988, 1.3% (838,000) of children lived with their father after divorce.1 In contrast, 7.8% (5,031,000) lived with their mother.

Losing Contact with Fathers After Divorce

Most children live with their mothers after a divorce. This separation of children from their fathers makes a sustained relationship difficult. National statistics from 1979 showed that, while the majority of divorced fathers (55%) have visitation privileges, only a minority (approximately one-third) of children who live apart from their fathers saw them at least once a month in the previous year; 15% saw their fathers less than once a month, 16% had some contact in the past one to five years, and 36% had not seen their fathers at all in the past five years or did not know where their fathers were living.11 The amount of contact with the noncustodial father did not appear to differ by the sex or age of the child.11 Divorced fathers were more likely to see their children in the first two years after the divorce if they had higher educational levels, if they provided higher amounts of child support, and if they lived closer to the child.11 Recent research suggests that the amount of time fathers spend with their children after divorce has increased in the past decade.12-18 For example, in a statewide random sample survey, Seltzer and associates found a visitation pattern that was somewhat higher than results from previous nationally representative samples.16 These changes, according to Kelly,19 reflect the effects of social and legal change over the past decade, the goal of which is to allow and encourage fathers to be more involved with their children after divorce. The number of children or age of the child does not appear to be associated with visit frequency, although frequency decreases with adolescence.19 Visit frequency also decreases with elapsed time since separation.19

The Declining Presence of Grandparents in Homes with Children

Grandparents have played an important role in supporting families with children, especially in single-parent families. Grandparents are three times more likely to reside in the homes of children living in one-parent families compared with the homes of children living in two-parent families, and this ratio has generally remained stable over the years.1 However, it is relatively rare for a child to be raised solely by a grandparent. Only a very small proportion of children (approximately 1.4% to 2.0%) lived with a grandparent rather than a parent, and this proportion has also remained constant over the years. In spite of the increasing rates of divorce and single parenthood, there has been a trend toward fewer and fewer grandparents in the homes of all children over the past 25 years. Prior to the 1960s, approximately one quarter of children in single-parent households lived with a grandparent; by 1980, this percentage dropped to approximately 10%.1 In intact two-parent (biological and/or adoptive families) or married stepfamilies, the presence of grandparents in homes with children decreased from approximately 8% to 9% in the 1940s and 1950s to 3% in 1980.1 It is not clear from these statistics what proportion of grandparents might have moved in with their children to help with the grandchildren, to get help from their children because of their own failing health, or for other reasons. The decrease in extended families may also reflect, in part, the increasing proportion of elderly couples who are financially secure enough to live apart from their children and grandchildren.

African-American children have generally been five to nine times more likely to have lived with a grandparent rather than a parent, as compared with white children.1 In spite of the large increase in the proportion of African-American children born to single mothers, the proportion of African-American children who have lived with a grandparent has also dropped significantly. In 1940, 7.6% of African-American children lived in grandparent-only homes, and this proportion dropped to 4.8% in 1980. In contrast, rates of grandparent-only families for white children have remained stable at approximately 1%.1