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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

Summary

The living arrangements of American children have been strongly affected by revolutionary social changes in the past 30 years. Large decreases in first-marriage rates and an increase in the likelihood of married couples to divorce have resulted in a wide diversity of living arrangements for children. In spite of increasing divorce rates, in 1990, the vast majority (71%) of the 64 million American children lived in two-parent households, and most (58%) lived with their biological parents. Since the 1970s, however, there has been a large increase in the proportion of children living with single or divorced mothers. Today, 7.3% (4.7 million) of children live with an unmarried parent, 9.1% (5.9 million) live with a divorced parent, and 7.4% (4.8 million) live with a separated or widowed parent. Each year since the 1970s, more than one million children have been affected by divorce.

The composition of single-parent households has also changed dramatically. The decreasing mortality rate in the past three decades among married individuals has resulted in fewer households headed by widowed parents. However, the decrease in widowed-parent households has been more than replaced by a corresponding increase in households headed by never-married women. Increasing divorce rates have resulted in more children living in stepfamilies and with divorced single mothers. Legal changes in the 1970s have resulted in an increase in the number of children living with divorced fathers. There are large differences in the living arrangements of children by ethnic group.

In the past 25 years, there has been an exponential increase in the proportion of African-American children living with never-married mothers. The most common form of living arrangement for African-American children today is one=parent families.

Most children live with their mothers after a divorce, and contact between the children and the divorced father declines rapidly after the divorce. Most fathers are awarded visitation privileges, but only a small minority of children have regular, sustained contact with their fathers after the divorce. Grandparents often play an important role in supporting families with children and are three times more likely to reside in the homes of children living in a divorced-parent household compared with a two-parent household. However, in spite of increasing rates of divorce and single parenthood, there has been a trend toward fewer and fewer grandparents residing in the homes of their grandchildren.