From having difficulty meeting basic needs to feeling overburdened and under supported, the pandemic is challenging families raising young children. This is especially true for single parents of young children, who exist in large numbers across the entire economic spectrum and among all racial and ethnic groups in the US. Single parents face especially pronounced challenges during this time as a result of having to rely on a single income and by being socially isolated.
- In our national representative survey of households with children age five and under, single parents report higher levels of emotional distress than caregivers in other households with young children. This includes higher levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness and stress.
- Single parents are also reporting higher levels of distress in their children. Our data show that differences in well-being between children in single parent households and those in other households have increased since the beginning of the pandemic.
- What explains the difficulty that single parent families with young children are facing during the pandemic? The isolation of single parents during the pandemic has been documented elsewhere (although the resilience of many single-parents during the pandemic has also been noted). Building on these existing findings, we see that single parent households in our survey are more likely than other households to be experiencing financial difficulties and to have become unemployed during the pandemic. They are also more likely to be experiencing material hardship (i.e., difficulties paying for basic needs, including food, rent, utilities, and childcare).
These economic and material hardships are directly affecting children in single-parent households, leading to increased fussiness and fearfulness in young children. In addition, the emotional distress that single parents are experiencing as a result of difficulties paying for basic needs is cascading down to children, which is having additional negative effects on child well-being.
These findings show that targeted relief efforts are needed to provide support to single parents and their children during the pandemic.
During the pandemic, we have all have been experiencing challenges from social isolation, balancing work and personal life, and feeling uncertain about our health and safety. Many have also lost work or had their incomes reduced. For those with families, the pandemic has been especially difficult. Figuring out how to work in the absence of child care was particularly difficult in the early months of the pandemic, when most providers were shut down. Even where it is now available, the costs of childcare have increased by an estimated 47%, due to reduced enrollment and increased costs of PPE and cleaning supplies. This has made child care less affordable, especially for those on limited budgets.
Rates of family conflict have also increased during the pandemic (although, our survey also finds parents report deriving more emotional support from their children now as compared to before the pandemic). Managing children’s online learning is another challenge for families, especially for those with elementary school-age children in addition to younger children. We have found that parents are shouldering the vast majority of the burden of supporting their children’s education on top of trying to work.
These challenges are amplified in many single-parent families. Although single parent households are as much defined by their diversity as their similarities, many have fewer financial resources as a result of being single wage-earners and fewer emotional and social supports.
In this week’s posting we focus on the particular complexities that single-parent households with young children are facing during the pandemic.
The proportion of single-parent families in the United States has been increasing steadily in recent decades.
In 2019 the US Census estimated that over 5 million children age 5 and under in this country live in a single parent household. Single parent households exist in large numbers across the economic spectrum, and among all racial and ethnic groups. The majority of single parents are women, who have, in general, been more negatively impacted by the pandemic than men in terms of income and employment.
Given the many ways that we have seen the pandemic challenge households with young children, we were interested in whether single parent households are experiencing more difficulties during the pandemic than other families, and if so in what areas of life. Although there are anecdotal reports of such difficulties in the media, the high quality data from our survey help provide a fuller picture of this important issue.
What do the survey data show?
1. Single parents are experiencing higher levels of emotional distress. We computed a composite score of parental distress that includes parent’s report of their own levels of anxiety, depression, stress, and loneliness. We find that the average level of distress for single parents — across the entire span of the survey, dating back to early April — is significantly higher than for other families.
This is true across all of the domains that comprise our emotional distress composite measure: anxiety, depression, stress, and loneliness.
2. Children in single-parent households are also experiencing higher levels of distress. We asked parents to report on the well-being of their children, including levels of fussiness and fearfulness. We find that, since April children in single parent households have higher overall levels of distress than children in other families.
This includes higher levels of both child fussiness and fearfulness.
Has the gap in emotional distress within single-parent households increased since before the pandemic?
When asked retrospectively about their well-being prior to the pandemic, single parents reported higher levels of overall distress than did other families. This was true of parental and child distress. This leads to the question of whether we are continuing to observe trends that pre-date the pandemic or whether the pandemic is widening the gap between the wellbeing of single parent families and others. It turns out that the answer is different depending on whether we look at parent or child wellbeing.
Our data on parent well-being show that the gap between single- and other parents has remained the same since before the pandemic; we are observing an increase in distress for parents in both groups. This does not mean that the differences in distress between single parents’ and others’ during the pandemic can be disregarded. Imagine two houses on a cliff above the ocean, one closer to the edge than another. If storms erode the cliff, the two houses are still the same distance apart, although the one closer to the edge is now in much greater peril than the other.
When it comes to child wellbeing, our data show that children in single-parent families have actually grown significantly more distressed than children in other families as compared to before the pandemic. This is true of overall distress and, specifically of child fearfulness.
Put simply, the pandemic has widened the gap between the wellbeing of children in single-parent households and that of those living in other families.
What accounts for the differences in well-being between single-parent households and others?
It appears that the differences between single parent households and others are associated with economic and material hardships.
Across all domains of material hardship that we measure, significantly more single parents report difficulties paying for basic needs.
Nearly twice as many single parents are struggling to pay for food, housing and utilities, and three times as many single parents report difficulty paying for childcare (33% vs. 11%).
We also find that compared to other parents, significantly more single parents have become unemployed during the pandemic (32% vs. 25%).
Financial and material hardship appear to be key drivers of adult and child distress. We have previously reported on this “chain reaction of hardship” among families in our survey. Specifically, we found that when adults report difficulty paying for basic needs in a given week, there is increased levels of parent emotional distress in subsequent weeks, which in turn leads to elevated child distress in the weeks that follow.
Our data on single parent households is more limited (smaller sample size and fewer participants completing the survey on multiple occasions). Nevertheless, we find similarly that material hardship is connected with child distress in two ways:
- First, it has an indirect effect on child distress by increasing caregiver distress.
- Second, it has a direct effect on child distress.
In short, material hardship continues to be at the root of diminished well-being in both parents and children during the pandemic.
Implications of these findings
If we want to support the health and well-being of households with young children during the pandemic, we must focus on the ability of families to pay for basic needs.
The complexities of maintaining employment while caring for young children is a recurring theme in our surveys. Our data suggest that these issues are amplified in single-parent families — not only in terms of much higher levels of food insecurity and lack of money to pay for rent, utilities, and childcare, but also in terms of significantly more employment loss.
The gap in well-being for children in single parent families is especially concerning. This gap existed before, but the pandemic is widening it. In particular, we are seeing increases in single parent reports of child fearfulness relative to children in other households. The extent to which levels of fearfulness are chronically elevated would suggest that the biological systems designed to help the body respond to stress are perpetually running on high alert. There is extensive research showing that experiences of this type of toxic stress can have lasting effects on health and well-being across the lifespan. As such, policy makers, social service providers, and communities must prioritize meeting the financial, material, and emotional needs of single-parent households during the pandemic and beyond.
- Policy makers must make enacting public health measures to control and contain the coronavirus among their highest priorities. As the current surge in infection rates continues in the absence of mandates requiring masks and social distancing in many states, the economic and social impacts of the pandemic are particularly challenging for single parent households.
- Policy makers must provide targeted financial relief to single parent households who are struggling financially. The imperative for such relief lies in the elevated levels of distress among both single parents and their children relative to other households, and especially the increasing gaps in child distress. The science of early childhood development provides conclusive evidence that single parent households need relief now and cannot wait for a new relief package to work its way through Congressional gridlock.
- Special attention must be paid to making safe and high quality child care available and affordable to single parent households. This includes all forms of childcare, including center-based and non-center-based, and licensed as well as license-exempt and family, friend, and neighbor care. Such support will facilitate single parents’ ability to work, thereby helping to mitigate the material hardship issues described above; in addition, the potential return on investments is large in terms of the national economic recovery from the pandemic.
 Note: The proportion of single-parent households in our survey was lower, based on US Census data, than the proportion nationally (15% vs. 27%). We compared the demographics of our sample with national data on single parents. Our single parent sample is comparable in terms of race and ethnicity and geographic distribution; however, our sample has a higher proportion of lower income individuals than national data on single parent households.
“Single Parents Are Struggling, but Enduring, Through the Pandemic,” The New York Times.
“The True Cost of Providing Safe Child Care During the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Center for American Progress.
“Under the Same Roof, for Better and for Worse,” Center for Translational Neuroscience.
“Something’s Gotta Give,” Center for Translational Neuroscience.
“America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2019,” United States Census Bureau.
“Single Parenting in a Pandemic,” The New York Times.
“Pandemic Will “Take Our Women 10 Years Back’ in the Workplace,” The New York Times.
“A Hardship Chain Reaction,” Center for Translational Neuroscience.
About the project
When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged last winter, there were over 24 million children age five and under living in the United States. This period of early childhood is a critical window that sets the stage for health and well-being across the lifespan. As such, it is essential during the current health and economic crisis to listen to the voices of households with young children.
The weekly survey of households with children age five and under launched on April 6, 2020. Since then, we have been gathering weekly data about child and adult emotional well-being, financial and work circumstances, availability of healthcare, and access to child care/early childhood education.
These analyses are based on responses collected from 7427 caregivers between the dates of April 06, 2020 and October 22, 2020. These caregivers represent a range of voices: 9.26% are Black/African American, 18.90% are LatinX, and 29.10% live at or below 1.5 times the federal poverty line. Proportions/percentages are calculated based on the item-level response rates, not out of the total sample size. The data for these analyses are not weighted.
We will continue to report on these issues as we learn more from each new weekly survey. We will also be producing policy briefs that make concrete recommendations about how to address the challenges we are seeing emerge from the family surveys.
Our goal is to use what we are hearing from families to improve the well-being of all households with young children, during the pandemic and beyond.
Center for Translational Neuroscience (2020, November 11). Home Alone: The Pandemic Is Overloading Single-parent Families. Medium. https://medium.com/rapid-ec-project/home-alone-the-pandemic-is-overloading-single-parent-families-c13d48d86f9e.