NCLS Research

Single parents

Among all Australians who are part of families, 14% are in one-parent families (ABS, 2002a). While some have chosen to be single parents, for many their situation has been brought about through the breakdown of their marriage or partnership. What are some of the needs and social patterns that can be detected across this group?

Personal characteristics

  • According to the Australian Community Survey (ACS), most single parents are divorced or separated (45%) or have never married (42%). The remaining 13% are widows.
  • Most single parents are under 50 years of age, with 31% aged 20–29 years, 21% aged 30–39 years and 25% aged 40–49 years.
  • Most single parents with children living at home are female (63%).
  • Many single parents have low levels of income. According to the ACS, most single parents (55%) received less than $30,000 per annum in 1997. Single-parent families are also over-represented in the lowest socioeconomic urban areas (20% compared with 16% of the population).

Work and leisure

  • Single parents and work. About half of single parents (49%) work less than 40 hours per week in paid employment and 26% work more than 40 hours per week. A further 25% do not work in paid employment. Single parents are as busy as the rest of the community. On a scale ranging from 1 (not at all busy) to 7 (too busy to cope), 61% of single parents score 5 or higher. This compares with a national average of 62%.
  • Some of their leisure is centred on meeting friends. Unlike couples with dependent children, single parents are more likely to engage in certain forms of entertainment and social gathering. Some 46% go to cinemas at least monthly (compared with 32% of the population) and 38% go to parties at least monthly (compared with 25% of the population). This reflects their younger age profile but may also reflect a need for social interaction beyond the family. A third of single parents (33%) say that the cinema is an important place for them to meet their friends, which is higher than the national average (27%). Other places that are more important for single parents than the rest of the population include parties (42%), the workplace (38%), and hotels or licensed clubs (32%).
  • Other leisure is centred on their children. The kinds of community and leisure activities that single parents engage in also reflect the needs of their children. Single parents are more likely than the general population to engage in outdoor recreational activities other than sport (57% compared with 49% of the population) and to be involved with school groups or organisations (20% compared with 17% of the population).

Beliefs and church attendance

  • Values among single parents. Single parents are more likely than other adults to affirm the importance of an exciting life (55% compared with 49%) and spirituality (39% compared with 32%) but are less likely to see the accumulation of wealth as being important (17% compared with 21%). They are more likely than other adults to view helping others as the most important value in life (38% compared with 31%). They also place a higher value than other adults on freedom as the most important value (56% compared with 47%).
  • They have average levels of interest in the Christian religion. Despite their younger age profile, single parents are just as likely to pray at least weekly as the general population (33%), to see the Christian faith as important for daily living (29%) and to hold a range of traditional Christian beliefs (30%). Single parents (17%) are almost as likely to attend church frequently as the population generally (20%). They are a little less likely to have at least some churchgoing friends (53% compared with 58% of the population). But they are twice as likely to have the perception that most church attenders are hypocritical, people who say one thing but do another.
  • They have an above average interest in alternative spirituality. Single parents are more likely than others to have an interest in alternative or New Age practices (24% compared with 14% of the population).

Ministry needs and opportunities

  • Divorce, separation and church. As already mentioned, single parents are almost as likely to attend church frequently as other people. However, church attendance levels are lower among single parents who are currently separated (12%). This may be a result of the values held by the churches, where the sanctity of marriage receives strong support.
  • The need for adult interaction. Like couples with dependent children, single parents have a tendency to engage in community or leisure activities centred around their children. This suggests that activities and events designed for families may be a good way of reaching them. However, the tendency for single parents to also engage in other leisure activities suggests a need for churches to provide them with adult social interaction beyond the family.
  • Activities that are spiritual and low cost. The more limited income resources of single parents and the value many of them place on spirituality suggests that low-cost activities provided by churches may be of interest to them. Churches may need active strategies for developing connections with these people, due to their lower levels of church-attending friends.
  • There are many difficulties that single parents are more likely to face than couples. A recent study of single mothers on welfare benefits suggests that they are more likely to have experienced physical or sexual assault and to have mental health disorders at some point in their lives compared with other mothers (Sydney Morning Herald, 19/5/03, p 6). Churches seeking to engage in ministry with these people must be prepared to offer appropriate support.
Source: Profiling Australians (2003)

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