The traditional American family is in shambles, with single-parent families on the rise so much that in some places they’re almost the norm.
How you define “traditional American family” and “shambles” may be open for debate, but the Census Bureau now tells us that over the past decades, the number of single-parent households has fallen by dramatic percentages.
Nationally, the number is down by 35%.
In Virginia, it’s down by 32%.
Closer examination shows that the number of single-parent families declined in all but one Virginia locality. That lone exception was Arlington County, where the number rose by 2%.
As regular readers know, I look at a lot of statistics, from Census Bureau statistics to voting statistics, and it’s rare to find this kind of uniformity. Population trends? There are always some places gaining and some places losing. Election trends? No matter how the national wave is flowing, there are always some places going the other way.
Not here, though.
Virtually every Virginia locality saw the number of single-parent households decline by double-digit rates.
By “virtually,” I mean the only localities that don’t have a double-digit decline of single-parent households are the aforementioned Arlington County, along with Loudoun County and Falls Church. In Loudoun, the figure is down 5%, in Falls Church, 7%.
In other places, the question isn’t whether the rate is down, it’s whether it’s down by more than the state or even national average. In 22 localities, all of them in rural areas, the number of single-parent households has been cut by half or more.
The localities with the biggest declines are Bath County (down 63%) and Charles City County (62%).
So what’s going on here? Those big percentage drops in rural areas can be partly explained by math. With smaller populations to begin with, their raw numbers of single-parent households are smaller, so it doesn’t take that big a number drop to translate into a large percentage decrease.
However, the overarching trends are quite real.
So why is this happening? Is there some piece of legislation we can point to that one party or another can claim credit for? Nope.
Here’s what Hamilton Lombard, a demographer with the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, has to say: “The most obvious reason for the decline in single-parent households has been young adults delaying starting families. Today, birth rates are highest among women in their early 30s, while the number of teen births in Virginia fell from close to 10,000 in 2000 to 3,500 in 2020 and has likely continued to decline. Divorce rates have also fallen since the 2000s, in part I believe because young adults are marrying later, often when they are more financially secure.”
The Census Bureau, which is gradually releasing data from the 2020 census, also has figures that show just how unusual single-parent households are.
Statewide, only 6.5% of households are single-parent households (the vast majority of those are led by women). The precise numbers: 5% of households are single-parent households led by women, 1.5% are single-parent households led by men.
The percentage of single-parent households led by men is almost the same across the state; every locality is either at 1% or 2%. What differs more widely from locality to locality – and bumps that 1% or 2% up to some other number – is how many single-parent households are led by women.
The localities with the lowest share of single-parent households are Bath County, Highland County, Goochland County and Rappahannock County, all at 3% of the households in those counties.
Bland County is next lowest at 4%.
All those are rural counties, but I’m not sure we can make the case that rural communities produce fewer single-parent households; it’s hard to lead a single-parent household anywhere, but no doubt harder in a rural community, where there are fewer child care options. I don’t have any stats on this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some single parents wound up in cities for that very reason.
Indeed, the highest percentages of single-parent households are in cities. Hopewell has the largest share, at 13%. Emporia and Franklin city are next at 12%.
While those numbers are high compared to other localities, they are also greatly reduced from what they were a decade before: Hopewell’s rate is down 32%, Emporia’s down 42%, Franklin city’s down 32%.
If you consider single-parent households to be a social ill, then this is an illness that’s being cured. We’re also recognizing what seems like a pretty profound shift.
Don’t conclude, though, that the drop in single-parent households means an increase in the percentage of married couples. The percentage of married-couple households in Virginia has also declined, just not as much.
In 2010, 50% of the households in Virginia were married couples. By 2020, that figure had slipped to 48%.
The percentage of married couples was down almost everywhere. The only places where the percentages were up were affluent metro areas. The married-couple rates went up the most in Arlington, Alexandria and Charlottesville, by 2% in each locality.
They were up by 1% in Fredericksburg, Harrisonburg, Lexington and Radford, and were even in Loudoun County, Fairfax city and Richmond.
The share of married-couple households fell the most in six places, five of them rural counties: down 6% in Dickenson, Greensville, Henry, Middlesex and Tazewell counties plus Colonial Heights.
What would account for these trends? Affluence and age.
The places where the percentage of married couples is up also tend to be expensive places to live, so it’s easier to live there if a household has two incomes, although those two income-earners don’t necessarily need to be married.
Age seems to be the driving factor. Those places with the biggest growth in the percentage of married couples tend to be younger communities, and younger adults tend to be the ones getting married.
The ones where the share of married-couple households is falling tend to be older — and older people have the unfortunate tendency to die. That means fewer married couples and more widows and widowers living alone.
Virginia now has more people over 65 living alone (10%) than it does single-parent households (6.5%), and those widows and widowers living alone tend to be in rural areas and small cities. In Lancaster County by the Chesapeake Bay, 22% of households are people over 65 living alone. In Lunenburg County in Southside, the figure is 19%. On the low side is Manassas Park at just 6%.
These figures are just a minority of the total number of people living alone. Two of the biggest demographic trends in the country right now are that drop in the number of single-parent households — and the rise in the number of people living alone, at any age.
We’ll take a look at that another day.