AS the 21st century edges closer, single parent Linda Johnson is already described as the probable parent of the future.
Instead of being part of the traditional American family with two married parents and children, Ms. Johnson is raising her two daughters alone in the Boston area after her divorce.
A recent United States Census Bureau report identifying the continuation of a major cultural shift in America, says millions of single parents like Johnson are raising children by themselves. In fact, almost 27 percent of American children live with a single parent, and half of US children, or 32.3 million, now live in a situation other than the nuclear family.
The American centerpiece of a family headed by married parents with biological children has substantially decreased in the last 23 years. Stacy Furukawa, the author of the report, says, ``We find that 3 out of 4 kids now live with two adults or parents but not their biological parents, and this is a new figure.''
A number of factors have triggered the changes in families, none more pivotal than the shift in cultural attitudes about births occurring out of wedlock. Another 1993 Census Bureau report indicates that even though the number of out-of-wedlock births slowed a little in the 80's it has soared to 6.3 million in 1993 from 243,000 in 1960.
``It is clear that people would still like to have children inside of marriage,'' says Kristin Moore, director of Child Trends, an organization in Washington, which studies adolescents. She says what's changed is the societal view ``that it is morally wrong if you don't marry, and your neighbors will not spurn you if a child is born outside of wedlock.''
For instance, 2 out of every 3 teenagers in the US who had babies between July of 1991 and June of 1992 were not married, according to the Census Bureau. Most live on welfare.
Statistics reflect one side of this moral shift, but not the emotional and economic impact on women struggling as single parents, or the quality of their lives.
``It was quite a challenge being a single parent from the standpoint of logistics and exhaustion,'' says Johnson, who lived on welfare, but has been employed now for several years, ``and the disadvantages of being a single parent definitely outweigh the advantages, but my daughters are now teenagers, and I have a very close relationship with them.''
The Census Bureau also reports great differences in family structure according to race. Among white children, around half live with both parents. But only a quarter of black children live with both parents.
As marriage becomes less popular among a younger segment of society, divorce rate for most ages continues to climb. The number of people in the US who are divorced tripled to 16.7 million in 1993 from 4.3 million in 1970.
``The stigma against divorce has changed,'' says Ms. Moore, ``and people who wouldn't have divorced 50 years ago are now divorcing. Also, women's employment opportunities are greater. And the odds of becoming a single parent have increased because more people are from single-parent families.''
The dark side of this change is that many divorced and separated women with children under 18 live in poverty. In 1991 almost 40 percent of divorced women lived below the poverty level.
No matter where single parents live. Some studies indicate that growing up in a single-parent family results in more challenges for children than in two-parent families.
The Search Institute, a non-profit Minneapolis organization that studies children's issues, studied 47,000 students in the US in 1993.
The study found that youths in single-parent families ``are more likely to get involved in at-risk behaviors earlier than youths in two-parent families.''
Areas of greater risk included alcohol and tobacco use, sexual activity, theft, suicide, and absence from school.
For instance, the study found that nearly 20 percent of children in grades 6 to 8 from single-parent families were sexually active compared to a little over 8 percent from two-parent families. And school absenteeism was double for children from single-parent families.
The report concluded, however, that ``family structure is not destiny.'' It said that the ``key to success in single parenting'' is an external network of support such as ``supportive, quality schools; friends who are a positive influence; involvement in extracurricular organizations and religious organizations.''
Despite the cultural changes shaking the family structure, there are countervailing trends.
``There has been an increase in the delaying of marriage and child-bearing among many people,'' says Moore. ``This is advantageous to kids. People who delay marriage and child-bearing are less likely to get divorced, and less likely to have children outside of marriage.''