DIVORCE
02/21/2011 03:19 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Single Mothers 'Bad For Society', Pew Research Center's Latest Poll Finds

Family structures across America are changing. But even as Americans redefine what "family" means and unconventional arrangements become more commonplace, a new survey from the Pew Research Center shows that an overwhelming number of people still believe that one of the most widespread "alternative" family arrangements out there--single motherhood--is bad for society.

The survey results captured the sharp divisions that exist in this country when it comes to beliefs about new family structures. Aside from single moms--that is, single women raising children without a male partner--the survey asked about gay and lesbian couples, unmarried couples raising children, mothers of young children who work outside the home, inter-racial unions, and mothers choosing not to have children.

The results were used to separate the group of 2,691 adults into three clusters: "Accepters," "Rejecters" and "Skeptics." A half to two-thirds of "Accepters" did not take issue with these trends, while a majority of "Rejecters" believed that, other than inter-racial marriage and fewer women having children, the other trends were bad for society. "Rejecters" were also the only group to say that working mothers are bad for society--61 percent of Rejecters answered this way. "Skeptics" were divided in their opinion, though almost all of them thought that single motherhood was bad for society, a belief shared by "Rejecters."

"Accepters" were the only people to say that single mothers were good for society--13 percent--while 74 percent of the group said it made no difference. To get some sense of this huge division (69 percent of the overall population were "Skeptics" or "Rejecters") we spoke with the author of the report, Rich Morin.

What was the most surprising finding?

That Americans attitudes towards single motherhood were so negative-- by negative I mean, nearly seven out of ten said that single women raising a child without the benefit of a male partner was bad for society. When we did the cluster analysis, we found something even more surprising: there was one group--the "Skeptics"--who by and large were very tolerant on every measure except for that one. It separated an otherwise tolerant group from those who were accepting of all the changes in family life

Why do you think so many people feel this way?

Clearly, Americans who view unmarried couples, gay couples raising children and the other trends, as making no difference one way or another, see single motherhood as a bad thing for society. There's an element of conservatism that suggests that people are evaluating what they see around them. They see children being raised by gay couples turning out very well--the homes are stable, the children are loved, the sons and daughters are flourishing--but they know too many people or read about too many people in single parent households where the outcomes are more negative. Americans, when they think of single mothers, don't think of a woman who is financially secure, who made a decision to have a child, who has the time and the social support to provide that child with a safe home. They're thinking about women abandoned by their husbands who may love their children deeply but because of the need to make a living can't devote as much time to them as perhaps they should, or want to.

To your point about financially secure women who decide on their own to have a kid, did peoples' opinions about single moms differ depending on the circumstance led them to become single moms?

We didn't look at how they became single mothers.

What reason do people seem to have for being against single motherhood?

On the basis of the survey, we can't say definitively what the answer is, but the data suggests that people aren't necessarily condemning single motherhood. Rather, they are saying the outcomes of single motherhood are often bad for society, therefore single motherhood is bad for society. Unfortunately there are a lot of kids who suffer the worst fate. We know that women, for a variety of reasons, don't fare well after a divorce, and specifically financially.

Tell me about the people in the "Rejecters" group

We know some of the characteristics about them. They tend to be more religious, tend to be more Republican and more conservative in their political views.

What about the "Accepters"; why are they okay with single motherhood?

Again you can look at some of the characteristics--they tend to be young people. Young people as a group are more accepting of all these trends. Sons and daughters of single mothers may be in this group. Also, if you look at marital status and whether or not you have children, a lot of these younger people don't have children and aren't married. Perhaps they don't know the tremendous investment a child is--the emotional investment and the time investment. They don't appreciate the consequences of single motherhood. Then again it could be that we are living in a changing world that is adapting very quickly

What's the extended demographic breakdown on who is against single motherhood?

Men are far more likely to say single mothers are bad for society. 74 percent of men say single moms are bad for society compared to 63 percent of women. 70 percent of whites, 74 percent of blacks, and 58 percent of Hispanics also said single mothers are bad for society.

What can we take away from this?

I think anyone should approach any statistical analysis with a degree of caution and try to understand what it means and also appreciate what it doesn't mean. This report is not condemning single motherhood, it is just offering a broad brush evaluation of what the public thinks of single moms. This report should not suggest that they embrace these changes, that there's a high level of approval for these different family structures.