Politics: Lone-parent mothers and fathers on the increase

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THE NUMBER of lone parents has risen by more than a quarter in five years, while the number of children living with one parent has increased by a third, the Office for National Statistics said yesterday.

While most lone parents are women, the ONS, in its latest edition of Population Trends, says there is a steady growth in lone fathers, particularly those who have never married. In 1971 only one in 13 families was headed by a single parent; now it is one in five. Estimated figures for 1996 put the number of single parents at 1.6 million compared with 1.23 million in 1990 and the number of dependent children living in one parent families in 1995 is estimated to be 2.7 million, compared with 2 million in 1990.

Thirty years ago lone mothers tended to be widows or separated. Now nearly four out of ten lone mothers have never married, and with divorced mothers make up nearly three- quarters of all single mothers. There is also a small but growing proportion of women - one in seven - who have never married or cohabited with anyone.

The percentage of widowed fathers has halved since the early 1970s, with divorces making up the largest percentage now. The growth in single lone fathers is, the ONS comments, "intriguing ... It is entirely possible this is a genuine trend representing a small but growing phenomenon of never-married fathers bringing up dependent children as part of a one- parent family".

The number of children per one parent family has also grown, while for couple families this has been the complete reverse. Since 1981 one-child families among one-parent families have fallen, while those with three or four children have grown. In comparison it is now more common for couple families to have one-child families and three and four-child families have become less frequent. Lone parents frequently have a sibling or more distant relative living with them or even someone other than a relative. The ONS suggests this is the case because lone parents have a greater need than others for more financial or practical support - such as paying guests or relatives to help bring up the children.

Lone mothers tend to be younger than lone fathers, with women tending to be in their early 30s, whereas men are in the early 40s - the age difference explained by the different marital status. The ONS notes that there is "tentative evidence" that the pace of increase of lone parent families may have slackened slightly in the most recent couple of years but that the prevalence is becoming an increasingly important part of our society.

Population Trends 91 is available from the Stationery Office, pounds 19.