For decades, the future of children raised in single-parent homes has looked as bleak as a vacant, littered lot.

Those youngsters have a greater risk of dropping out of school, landing in jail, living in poverty, suffering depression, and on and on, when compared with children in traditional families, research has consistently found.

"Single-parent households are filled with bad news," said Maria Kefalas, an associate professor of sociology at St. Joseph's University.

In some circles, one man seems to be changing that assessment. The history-making story of President-elect Barack Obama has infused a gray landscape with splashes of cheery colors, at least in the eyes of many single parents.

He was an African American child raised without his father who grew up to be elected president of the United States, arguably the most powerful job in the world.

Many of the country's 12 million single mothers and fathers - 29 percent of them black - have found inspiration and hope in Obama's story.

Though his is certainly not the only success story to come out of a single-parent home with little paternal involvement, it has proved compelling enough to capture the imagination of many.

"The perception of the outside world of what a single- parent house can accomplish has greatly changed," Michelle Morgan, 31, of South Philadelphia said.

Morgan, an administrative assistant at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, is alone in raising sons Evan Drake, 7, and Robert Franklin, 2.

"The playing field has leveled."

Isa Allende, 28, of North Philadelphia, agreed. The single mother of Avron Averette, 2, said Obama's election "completely gives you a whole different outlook on life."

His success, she said, motivates her to "strive harder to succeed in life."

Perhaps the symbol Obama represents most palpably, especially to African Americans, is that of a black man who broke racial barriers to win the White House.

Morgan said that image resonates foremost in her family, especially as a black mother of sons. Already, the youngsters know the story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old whose murder in 1955 for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi helped spark the civil rights movement.

Morgan said that after Nov. 4 the Emmett Till story was "still part of [her sons'] history, but not necessarily the reality of their future."

Entwined within the anything-is-possible feeling is the realization that a fatherless child can succeed, exceptionally well, she said.

"You have an example - a living, breathing, talking, walking example," she said.

Obama began life with the odds against him.

As the now-familiar story goes, his mother, a white woman named Stanley Ann Dunham, was only 18 when she gave birth to her son in Hawaii in 1961. His Kenyan father left the family a couple of years later. (He visited the boy only once, when Obama was 10.)

His mother's second marriage, to an Indonesian student, took her and Barack to that island nation. That marriage also ended, and the single mother eventually returned to Hawaii. At one point, the family was on food stamps. By high school, Obama had chosen to live with his grandparents in Hawaii while his mother returned to work in Indonesia.

Kefalas, the St. Joe's sociologist, argues that Obama beat the odds. That he excelled is a testament to his own - and his mother's - extraordinary abilities, she said.

"We should be cautious of the idea that it proves these families work just fine," she said.

Other experts, however, suggest that the Obamas of the world paint a more complex picture of single-parent households and the factors that determine good or bad outcomes.

According to Howard Stevenson, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, comparing one parent against two - as much of the past research has done - is "a flimsy way to make a comparison."

"The notion of a nuclear family and the notion of 9-to-5 work has changed," he said. "It's not the only way to define healthy families. . . .

"Obama is an example of what can be," Stevenson said. "The families that tend to do well are the ones who are able to gather resources, and those resources can ignite the symbolic power of an Obama presidency."

By resources, he means the support not only of programs that help single parents, but also the relatives, religious leaders and teachers who can serve as daily models for children.

Ellie Brown studies the lives of families dealing with economic hardship in Philadelphia. The assistant professor of psychology at West Chester University said some of those she follows have talked about Obama's upbringing and the hope it offers them.

"Children of single parents can flourish," she said. "And there isn't just one type of family that can support children having good lives."

The key, Brown said, is not necessarily marriage, but a close relationship with a primary caregiver, multiple adults who are committed to the child's well-being, and some degree of stability.

In many ways, Obama had that type of life. His grandparents helped raise him.

His mother was exacting. Obama has told the story of how she made him rise at 4 a.m. to study English in Indonesia. When he complained, he said, she retorted: "This is no picnic for me either, buster."

Even when apart, the two communicated through letters. She is said to have reprimanded him for his lack of effort in high school. He has described her as "the single constant in my life."

Rich Laster, 33, of Wynnefield, a strategic planner for the city, understands the power of that type of rock. He, too, is the product of a single mother.

Laster, himself a single father of two, said his mother worked the night shift at the post office, but made sure she was there each morning to cook him breakfast, check homework, and see him off to school.

His grandmother, he said, exposed him to opera, black history and other cultures. His mother took him to museums.

Out of seven boys in his neighborhood who grew up with single mothers, Laster considers only himself and one other successful.

"Our parents were not any richer than anyone else," he said. "The difference was the level of investment our parents made in us, nurturing more than just our bodies, nurturing our souls, nurturing our dreams, nurturing our ability to dream."