Skip to content
July 8, 2008 / C H Thompson

Lone parent families

‘One-parent families’ only appeared in official documentation in the 1960s. Of course, arrangements whereby one parent brings up a child have always existed but historically it was a phenomenon known by different stigmatised names (e.g. ‘unmarried mother’, ‘fatherless family’) and regarded from different perspectives (e.g. as pathological).

The change in name, some shift towards being regarded as a variant family form, the rise of pressure groups, changes in welfare provision and the collection of statistics on what is now more commonly referred to as lone parenthood all illustrate how this category and this experience ispoverty socially constructed.

Due to this social-shift an official definition of a lone-parent family exists to offset any social stigma: “A mother or father living without a partner (either married or cohabiting), with their dependent children. The child must be under 19 and in full-time education.”

However, the experience of lone parenthood remains ‘full of ambiguities’ with an overall picture of ‘resilience and inventiveness as well as unrelieved responsibilities and frustrations in the face of adverse economic and social processes of marginalisation’ (Hardey and Crow, 1991:3). For example single parent households are the most likely to be in arrears on one or more household bills, mortgage or nonmortgage borrowing commitment 31% (Gingerbread, 2013).

Nevertheless the following official statistics (January 2012, Office for National Statistics) show the extent to which Britain’s seen an increasing rise in the number of single-parent families:

  • In 1971 just 8 per cent of families with children were single parent families
  • In 1998 24 per cent of families with children were single parent families
  • In 2011 26 per cent of families with children were single parent families

In June 2013 the Centre for Social Justice published a report into the extent and effects of lone parent families in the UK. The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) was established as an independent think-tank by the Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP in 2004.

As Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith said: “In the fourth largest economy in the world, too many people lived in dysfunctional homes, trapped on benefits. Too many children were leaving school with no qualifications or skills to enable them to work and prosper.”

In contrast other social commentators have argued the Centre for Social Justice is a right-wing think tank with a right-wing bias. For example Tom Slater Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Edinburgh published his left-wing perspective of the Centre for Social Justice.

These different explanations are mirrored in the media with left and right-wing newspapers taking a particular stance on the issue of lone-parenting. Newspapers like the Guardian express a left-wing analysis while right-wing newspapers such as the Daily Mail express their view point. What is becomes interesting is ITV’s ‘objective’ reporting on the issues surrounding loan parenting.

The competing political explanations highlight the complexity in creating social policies. Notwithstanding these tensions lone parenting is increasing and the reasons are as complex as the explanations.

Sociologists have identified the numerous causes of lone parenthood. One method they use is to separate the different causes between married and non-married individuals.

For married couples the causes of lone parenthood tends to fall into three main categories:

  • divorce
  • separation
  • death of a spouse

While the cause of lone parenthood for individuals who have never been married tends to be due to:

  • may have been living with the parent of the child when the child was born, but then their relationship terminated
  • a relationship was formed after the birth of the child, but the relationship terminated a period of time later

The reasons for the increase in lone-parenthood are varied. Allan and Crow (2001) have identified two factors. First is an increase in marital breakdown and secondly a rise in births to unmarried mothers. They argue these trends are due to society’s acceptance of family diversity. While David Morgan (1994) puts the rise of lone parenthood down to the changing relationships between men and women a point also identified by Val Gillies (2003) who explored the changing family relationships which stresses the changing dynamics of family intimacy through changing ‘ethics of friendship, negotiation and disclosure’ which adds to family diversity.

Mark Brown (1995) puts the increase of singlehood down to a decline in ‘shotgun weddings’ in addition to a growing social acceptance of cohabitation. And if that relationship fails, then singlehood becomes the outcome. The increased acceptance of having children outside marriage was also uncovered from Alison Park’s (2001) research and in 2004

Who are the single parents?

  • There are 3 million children living in a single parent household (23% per cent of all dependent children) (1)
  • Around 8 per cent of single parents (186,000) are fathers (2)
  • The average duration of single parenthood is around 5 years (3)
  • Only 6.5 per cent of all births are registered alone, and 10 per cent are registered to two parents who live apart (4)
  • Single fathers are more likely to be widowed than single mothers (12 per cent of single fathers are widowed, compared with 5 per cent of single mothers), and their children tend to be older (5)
  • Just under half of couples divorcing in 2009 had at least one child aged under 16. Over a fifth (21 per cent) of the children in 2009 were under five and 63 per cent were under eleven (6)

Despite the increase of single-parent families their is little evidence to suggest single parents actively seek such status by having planned pregnancies without a partner. However some politicians argue the rise of single parenthood is due to the welfare state.

Return to family diversity

(Sources: (1)Households Below Average Income, An analysis of the income distribution 1994/95 – 2009/10, Table 4.1ts. Department for Work and Pensions, 2011; (2) Lone parents with dependent children, January 2012, Office for National Statistics; (3) Leaving Lone Parenthood: Analysis of the repartnering patterns of lone mothers in the U.K. Skew, A., Berrington, A., Falkingham, J. 2008, on data from 2005; (4) Derived from Households and Families, Social Trends 41, Table 6 & 7. ONS, 2011. Data from 2009 (5) Analysis of Labour Force Survey data from June 2006 produced for Gingerbread by ONS; (6) Divorces in England and Wales 2009. ONS Statistical Bulletin, February 2011




Leave a Comment
  1. regenhair / Sep 23 2014 3:54 pm

    Hey there, You’ve done an excellent job. I will
    decinitely digg it annd persoally rrecommend to myy friends.

    I’m sure they will be benefited from this web site.

  2. Nikoletta Scherer / May 19 2020 5:35 pm

    I’m confused if you wrote this in 2008, how have you got statistics from 2013?

    • C H Thompson / May 30 2020 5:52 pm

      Hi – you’re correct the page was first published in 2008 but has been amended several times since the original publication, hence the 2013 data. Hope you found the information useful and thanks for the comment 🙂


  1. Family diversity « Sociology at Twynham School
  2. Family diversity – Sociologychis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: