Research About the Epidemic
Marriage and Caste
Kay S. Hymowitz
City Journal, Winter 2006
Americaâ€™s chief source of inequality? The Marriage Gap.
For a while it looked like Hurricane Katrina would accomplish what the NAACP never could: reviving civil rights liberalism as a major force in American politics. There it was for the whole world to see: the United States was two nations, one rich, one poor and largely black, one driving away in the family SUV to sleep in the snug guest rooms of suburban friends and relatives, the other sunk in the fetid misery of the Superdome. Newsweek, echoing Michael Harringtonâ€™s 1962 landmark book that ignited the War on Poverty, titled its Katrina coverage â€œThe Other Americaâ€ and warned the nation not to return to the â€œold evasions, hypocrisies, and not-so-benign neglectâ€ of the â€œproblems of poverty, race, and class.â€
Though that liberalism revival only lasted for about five minutes, the post-Katrina insight was correct. There are millions of poor Americans, living not just in down-on-your-luck hardship but in entrenched, multigenerational poverty. There is growing inequality between the haves and the have-nots. And there are reasons to worry whether the American dream is within the reach of all.
But what two-America talk doesnâ€™t get is just how much these ominous trends are entangled with the collapse of the nuclear family. While Americans have been squabbling about gay marriage, they have managed to miss the real marriage-and-social-justice issue, one that affects far more people and threatens to undermine the American project. We are now a nation of separate and unequal families not only living separate and unequal lives but, more worrisome, destined for separate and unequal futures.
Two-America Jeremiahs usually nod at the single-parent family as a piece of the inequality story, but quickly change the subject to describeâ€”accurately, as far as it goesâ€”an economy that has implacably squeezed out manufacturing jobs, reduced wages for the low-skilled, and made a wallet-busting college education crucial to a middle-class future. But one canâ€™t disentangle the economic from the family piece. Given that families socialize children for successâ€”or notâ€”and given how marriage orders lives, they are the same problem. Separate and unequal families produce separate and unequal economic fates.
Most people understand what happened to the American family over the last half-century along these lines: the birth control pill begat the sexual and feminist revolutions of the 1960s, which begat the decline of the traditional nuclear family, which in turn introduced the country to a major new demographic: the single mother. Divorce became as ubiquitous as the automobile; half of all marriages, we are often reminded, will end in family court. Growing financial independence and changing mores not only gave women the freedom to divorce in lemming-like numbers; it also allowed them to dispense with marriage altogether and have children, Murphy Brownâ€“style, on their own. (This is leaving aside inner-city teenage mothers, whom just about everyone sees as an entirely different and more troubling category.) Today, we frequently hear, a third of all children are born to unmarried women.
To put it a little differently, after the 1960s women no longer felt compelled to follow the life course charted in a once-popular childhood rhymeâ€”first comes love, then marriage, then the baby carriage. Sure, some people got married, had kids, and stayed married for life, but the hegemony of Ozzie and his brood was past. Alternative families are just the way things are; for better or for worse, in a free society people get to choose their own â€œlifestylesâ€-bringing their children along for the ride-and they are doing so not just in the United States but all over the Western world.
That picture turns out to be as equivocal as an Escher lithograph, however. As the massive social upheaval following the 1960sâ€”what Francis Fukuyama has termed â€œthe Great Disruptionâ€â€”has settled into the new normal, social scientists are finding out that when it comes to the family, America really has become two nations. The old-fashioned married-couple-with-children model is doing quite well among college-educated women. It is primarily among lower-income women with only a high school education that it is in poor health. This fact may not conform to the view from Hollywood; movies from Kramer vs. Kramer to The Ice Storm to the recent The Squid and the Whale, not to mention unmarried celebrity moms like Goldie Hawn and moms-to-be like Katie Holmes, have helped reinforce the perception that elite women snubbing a conformist patriarchy were the vanguard of a vast social change. Now itâ€™s pretty clear that this is a myth saying more about La-La Land than the reality of American family breakdown.
The most important recent analysis of that reality is â€œThe Uneven Spread of Single-Parent Families,â€ a 2004 paper by Harvardâ€™s David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks. The Kennedy School profs divide American mothers into three categories by education level: women with a college degree or higher; women with a high school diploma (including those with some college, whose trends look very similar to those with high school alone); and women who never graduated high school. The paperâ€™s findings are worth pondering in some detail.
Forty-five years ago, there was only a small difference in the way American women went about the whole marriage-and-children question; just about everyone, from a Smith grad living in New Canaan, Connecticut, to a high school dropout in Appalachia, first tied the knot and only then delivered the bouncing bundle of joy. As of 1960, the percentage of women with either a college or high school diploma who had children without first getting married was so low that youâ€™d need a magnifying glass to find it on a graph; even the percentage of high school dropouts who were never-married mothers barely hit 1 percent. Moreover, after getting married and having a baby, almost all women stayed married. A little under 5 percent of mothers in the top third of the education distribution and about 6 percent of the middle group were either divorced or separated (though these figures donâ€™t include divorced-and-then-remarried mothers). And while marital breakup was higher among mothers who were high school dropouts, their divorce rate was still only a modest 8 percent or so.
That all changed in the decades following the 1960s, when, as everyone who was alive at the time remembers, the American family seemed on the verge of self-immolation. For women, marriage and children no longer seemed part of the same story line. Instead of staying married for the kids, mothers at every education level joined the national divorce binge. By 1980, the percentage of divorced college-educated mothers more than doubled, to 12 percentâ€”about the same percentage as divorced mothers with a high school diploma or with some college. For high school dropout mothers, the percentage increased to 15 percent. An increasing number of women had children without getting married at all. So far the story conforms to general theory.
But around 1980, the family-forming habits of college grads and uneducated women went their separate ways. For the next decade the proportion of college-educated moms filing for divorce stopped increasing, and by 1990 it actually starting going down. This was not the case for the least educated mothers, who continued on a divorce spree for another ten years. It was only in 1990 that their increase in divorce also started to slow and by 2000 to decline, though it was too late to close the considerable gap between them and their more privileged sisters.
Far more dramatic were the divergent trends in what was still known at the time as illegitimacy. Yes, out-of-wedlock childbearing among women with college diplomas tripled, but because their numbers started at Virtually Nonexistent in 1960 (a fraction of 1 percent), they only moved up to Minuscule in 1980 (a little under 3 percent of mothers in the top third of education distribution) to end up at a Rare 4 percent.
Things were radically different for mothers in the lower two educational levels. They decided that marriage and children were two entirely unconnected life experiences. That decline in their divorce rate after 1990? Well, it turns out the reason for it wasnâ€™t that these women had thought better of putting their children through a parental breakup, as many of their more educated sisters had; it was that they werenâ€™t getting married in the first place. Throughout the 1980s and nineties, the out-of-wedlock birthrate soared to about 15 percent among mothers with less than a high school education and 10 percent of those with a high school diploma or with some college.
Many people assume that these low-income never-married mothers are teen mothers, but teens are only a subset of unmarried mothers, and a rather small one in recent years. Yes, the U.S. continues to be the teen-mommy capital of the Western world, with 4 percent of teen girls having babies, a rate considerably higher than Europeâ€™s. But that rate is almost one-third lower than it was in 1991, and according to up-to-the-minute figures from the National Center for Health Statistics, teens account for only about a quarter of unwed birthsâ€”compared with half in 1970. Today 55 percent of unmarried births are to women between 20 and 24; another 28 percent are to 25- to 29-year-olds. These days, it is largely low-income twentysomethings who are having a baby without a wedding ring. The good news is that single mothers are not as likely to be 15; the bad news is that there is now considerable evidence to suggest that, while their prospects may be a little better than their teenage sistersâ€™ would be, they are not dramatically so.
Race has also added to misperceptions about single mothers. Itâ€™s easy to see why, with close to 70 percent of black children born to single mothers todayâ€”including educated mothersâ€”compared with 25 percent of non-black kids. But blacks make up only 12 percent of the countryâ€™s population, and black children account for only one-third of the nationâ€™s out-of-wedlock kids.
Tune out the static from teen pregnancy, race, and Murphy Brown, then, and the big news comes into focus: starting in 1980, Americans began to experience a widening Marriage Gap that has reached dangerous proportions. As of 2000, only about 10 percent of mothers with 16 or more years of educationâ€”that is, with a college degree or higherâ€”were living without husbands. Compare that with 36 percent of mothers who have between nine and 14 years of education. All the statistics about marriage so often rehashed in magazine and newspaper articles hide a startling truth. Yes, 33 percent of children are born to single mothers; in 2004, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, that amounted to 1.5 million children, the highest number ever. But the vast majority of those children are going home from the maternity wards to low-rent apartments. Yes, experts predict that about 40 to 50 percent of marriages will break up. But most of those divorces will involve women who have always shopped at Wal-Mart. â€œ[T]he rise in single-parent families is concentrated among blacks and among the less educated,â€ summarize Ellwood and Jencks. â€œIt hardly occurred at all among women with a college degree.â€
When Americans began their family revolution four decades ago, they didnâ€™t tend to talk very much about its effect on children. That oversight now haunts the country, as it becomes increasingly clear that the Marriage Gap results in a yawning social divide. If you want to discuss why childhood poverty numbers have remained stubbornly high through the years that the nation was aggressively trying to lower them, begin with the Marriage Gap. Thirty-six percent of female-headed families are below the poverty line. Compare that with the 6 percent of married-couple families in povertyâ€”a good portion of whom are recent, low-skilled immigrants, whose poverty, if history is any guide, is temporary. The same goes if you want to analyze the inequality problemâ€”start with the Marriage Gap. Virtually allâ€”92 percentâ€”of children whose families make over $75,000 are living with both parents. On the other end of the income scale, the situation is reversed: only about 20 percent of kids in families earning under $15,000 live with both parents.
Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan, co-author of the breakthrough book Growing Up With a Single Parent, has fleshed out the implications of the Marriage Gap for children in an important paper in Demographyâ€”and theyâ€™re not pretty. McLanahan observes that, after 1970, women at all income levels began to marry at older ages, and the average age of first marriage moved into the mid-twenties. But where mothers at the top of the income scale also put off having children until they were married, spending their years before marriage getting degrees or working, those at the bottom did neither.
The results radically split the experiences of children. Children in the top quartile now have mothers who not only are likely to be married, but also are older, more mature, better educated, and nearly three times as likely to be employed (whether full- or part-time) as are mothers of children in the bottom quartile. And not only do top-quartile children have what are likely to be more effective mothers; they also get the benefit of more time and money from their live-in fathers.
For children born at the bottom of the income scale, the situation is the reverse. They face a decrease in what McLanahan terms â€œresourcesâ€: their mothers are younger, less stable, less educated, and, of course, have less money. Adding to their woes, those children arenâ€™t getting much (or any) financial support and time from their fathers. Surprisingly, McLanahan finds that in Europe, tooâ€”where welfare supports for â€œlone parents,â€ as they are known in Britain, are much higher than in the United Statesâ€”single mothers are still more likely to be poor and less educated. As in the United States, so in Europe and, no doubt, the rest of the world: children in single-parent families are getting less of just about everything that we know helps to lead to successful adulthood.
All this makes depressing sense, but when you think about it, the Marriage Gap itself presents a puzzle. Why would women working for a pittance at the supermarket cash registers decide to have children without getting married, while women writing briefs at Debevoise & Plimpton, who could easily afford to go it alone, insist on finding husbands before they start families? For a long time, social scientists assumed, reasonably enough, that economic self-sufficiency would lead more women to opt for single motherhood. And to listen to the drone of complaint about men around water coolers, in Internet chat rooms, on the Oxygen Network, and in Maureen Dowdworld, there would seem to be plenty of potential recruits for Murphy Browndom. Certainly when they talk to pollsters, women say that they donâ€™t think thereâ€™s anything wrong with having a baby without a husband. Yet the women who are forgoing husbands are precisely the ones who can least afford to do so.
The conventional answer to the puzzle is this: in an economy marked by manufacturing decline, especially in cities, too many of the potential husbands for low-income women are either flipping burgers, unemployed, or in jailâ€”in other words, poor marriage material. But three facts raise doubts about this theory.
One, itâ€™s not just unemployed men or McDonaldâ€™s cooks who have become marriage-avoidant; working-class men with decent jobs are also shying from the altar. Two, cohabitation among low-income couples has been increasing; about 40 percent of all out-of-wedlock babies today are born to cohabiting parents. Why would there be a dearth of marriageable men, when there appear to be plenty of cohabitable fathers? And three, marriage improves the economic situation of low-income women, even if their husbands are only deliverymen or janitors. In a large and highly regarded study, the Urban Instituteâ€™s Robert Lerman concluded that married, low-income, low-educated women enjoyed significantly higher living standards than comparable single mothers. Joe Sixpack may not be Mr. Darcy, but financially, at any rate, heâ€™s a lot better than no husband at all.
Still, whatever the arguments against it, the no-marriageable-men theory is entrenched in policy circles and in the academy and is unlikely to go anywhere soon, so letâ€™s try another approach to the Marriage Gap conundrum. Instead of asking why poor and near-poor women have stopped marrying before having children, letâ€™s think instead about why educated women continue to do soâ€”even though, in order to be accepted in polite company or to put food on the table, they donâ€™t need to.
One possible answer is especially pertinent to the Marriage Gap: educated women know that theyâ€™d better marry if they want their children to succeed academically, which increasingly is critical to succeeding in the labor market. The New Economy may have made single motherhood a workable arrangement for high-earning mothers in purely economic terms, but it made a husband a must-have in terms of child rearing. No one understands better than an Amherst or Stanford B.A. that her children will have to go to college one dayâ€”the bigger the college name, the betterâ€”if they are to keep their middle-class status. These women also understand how to get their kids college-bound. Educated, middle-class mothers tend to be dedicated to what I have called The Mission, the careful nurturing of their childrenâ€™s cognitive, emotional, and social development, which, if all goes according to plan, will lead to the honor roll and a spot on the high school debate team, which will in turn lead to a good college, then perhaps a graduate or professional degree, which will all lead eventually to a fulfilling career, a big house in a posh suburb, and a sense of meaningful accomplishment.
Itâ€™s common sense, backed up by plenty of research, that youâ€™ll have a better chance of fully â€œdevelopingâ€ your childrenâ€”that is, of fulfilling The Missionâ€”if you have a husband around. Children of single mothers have lower grades and educational attainment than kids who grow up with married parents, even after controlling for race, family background, and IQ. Children of divorce are also less likely to graduate and attend college, and when they do go for a B.A., they tend to go to less elite schools. Cornell professor Jennifer Gerner was baffled some years ago when she noticed that only about 10 percent of her students came from divorced families. She and her colleague Dean Lillard examined the records of students at the nationâ€™s top 50 schools and, much to their surprise, found a similar pattern. Children who did not grow up with their two biological parents, they concluded when they published their findings, were only half as likely to go to a selective college. As adults, they also earned less and had lower occupational status.
To repeat the question: Why do educated women marry before they have children? Because, like high-status women since status began, they are preparing their offspring to carry on their way of life. Marriage radically increases their chances of doing that.
This all points to a deeply worrying conclusion: the Marriage Gapâ€”and the inequality to which it is tiedâ€”is self-perpetuating. A low-income single mother, unprepared to carry out The Mission, is more likely to raise children who will become low-income single parents, who will pass that legacy on to their children, and so on down the line. Married parents are more likely to be visiting their married children and their grandchildren in their comfortable suburban homes, and those married children will in turn be sending their offspring off to good colleges, superior jobs, and wedding parties. Instead of an opportunity-rich country for all, the Marriage Gap threatens us with a rigid caste society.
So what is it about the nuclear family that makes it work so well for children decades after Americans have declared it optional? The economists and sociologists who study these things often answer that question with some variation of what might be called the strength-in-numbers theory. Kids with two parents are more likely to have two incomes cushioning them during their developing years. More money means more stability, less stress, better day care and health care, more books, more travel, and, most of all, a home in a good school districtâ€”all of which lead to educational and, eventually, workplace success. A husband and wife can support each other if one is laid off or if the other wants retraining or more education. They can take turns caring for the children. Or if they can afford to, they can specialize: the woman (yes, itâ€™s still almost always the woman) can take over as homework helper and soccer-team and church-group chauffeur, while the man earns a salary. According to the strength-in-numbers theory, then, two parents are better than one much the way two hands are better than one: they can accomplish more.
But this theory finally doesnâ€™t explain all that much. If two parents are what make a difference, then why, when a divorced mother remarries, do her childrenâ€™s outcomes resemble those of children from single-parent homes more than they do those from intact families? Why do they have, on average, lower school grades, more behavior problems, and lower levels of psychological well-beingâ€”even when a stepparent improves their economic standard of living?
You could posit that children in stepfamilies may well have suffered through their parentsâ€™ divorce or have had a difficult spell in a single-parent home. But what, then, do we make of cohabiting parents? Two cohabiting parents also provide few of the benefits for kids that married couples do. The Urban Instituteâ€™s Robert Lerman has found that even when cohabiters resemble married couples in terms of education, number of children, and income, they experience more material hardshipâ€”things like an empty pantry or no phone or an electricity shutoffâ€”and get less help from extended families when they do. And poverty rates of cohabiting-couple parents are double those of married couples. (Lermanâ€™s study controls for education, immigration status, and race.)
Others take an alternative approach to the question of why children growing up with their own two married parents do better than children growing up without their fathers. Itâ€™s not marriage that makes the difference for kids, they argue; itâ€™s the kind of people who marry. Mothers who marry and stay married already have the psychological endowment that makes them both more effective partners and more competent parents. After all, weâ€™ve already seen that married mothers are more likely to be educated and working than single mothers; it makes sense that whatever abilities allowed them to write their Economics 101 papers or impress a prospective boss or husband also make them successful wives and mothers. Many low-income mothers may not have the skillsâ€”or, some would argue, the IQâ€”that would get them their B.A. or a good job, and this lack makes them less likely both to marry or stay married and to raise successful children. â€œParents with limited cultural and material resources are unlikely to remain together in a stable marriage,â€ Frank Furstenberg, a famed family researcher, wrote in Dissent last summer. â€œBecause the possession of such psychological, human and material capital is highly related to marital stability, it is easy to confuse the effects of stable marriage with the effects of competent parenting.â€
The problem with this theory is that it merely tiptoes up to the obvious. There is something fundamentally different about low-income single mothers and their educated married sisters. But a key part of that difference is that educated women still believe in marriage as an institution for raising children. What is missing in all the ocean of research related to the Marriage Gap is any recognition that this assumption is itself an invaluable piece of cultural and psychological capitalâ€”and not just because it makes it more likely that children will grow up with a dad in the house. As societyâ€™s bulwark social institution, traditional marriageâ€”that is, childbearing within marriageâ€”orders social life in ways that we only dimly understand.
For one thing, women who grow up in a marriage-before-children culture organize their lives around a meaningful and beneficial life script. Traditional marriage gives young people a map of life that takes them step by step from childhood to adolescence to college or other work trainingâ€”which might well include postgraduate educationâ€”to the workplace, to marriage, and only then to childbearing. A marriage orientation also requires a young woman to consider the question of what man will become her husband and the father of her children as a major, if not the major, decision of her life. In other words, a marriage orientation demands that a woman keep her eye on the future, that she go through life with deliberation, and that she use self-disciplineâ€”especially when it comes to sex: bourgeois women still consider premature pregnancy a disaster. In short, a marriage orientationâ€”not just marriage itselfâ€”is part and parcel of her bourgeois ambition.
When Americans announced that marriage before childbearing was optional, low-income women didnâ€™t merely lose a steadfast partner, a second income, or a trusted babysitter, as the strength-in-numbers theory would have it. They lost a traditional arrangement that reinforced precisely the qualities that they-and their men; letâ€™s not forget the men!â€”needed for upward mobility, qualities all the more important in a tough new knowledge economy. The timing could hardly have been worse. At a time when education was becoming crucial to middle-class status, the disadvantaged lost a reliable life script, a way of organizing their early lives that would prize education and culminate in childbearing only after job training and marriage. They lost one of their few institutional supports for planning ahead and taking control of their lives.
Worst of all, when Americans made marriage optional, low-income women lost a culture that told them the truth about what was best for their children. A number of researchers argue that, in fact, low-income women really do want to marry. They have â€œwhite picket dreams,â€ say Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas in Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, and though the men in their lives cannot turn those dreams into reality, they continue to gaze longingly into the distance at marriage as a symbol of middle-class stability and comfort. What they donâ€™t have, however, is a clue about the very fact that orders the lives of their more fortunate peers: marriage and childbearing belong together. The result is separate and unequal families, now and as far as the eye can see.
As family experts find themselves surrendering to their own research and arguing more and more that marriage is central to the overall well-being of children, they often caution that it is not a cure-all. â€œIs Marriage a Panacea?â€ is the illustrative title of a 2003 article in the scholarly journal Social Problems, and you know the answer to the question without reading a page. No, shrinking the Marriage Gap may not be a magic potion for ending poverty or inequality or any other social problem. But itâ€™s hard to see how our two Americas can become one without more low-income men and women making their way to the altar.
Marriage may not be a panacea. But it is a sine qua non.
EMPIRICAL RESEARCH STUDIES AND STATISTICS
Sexual activity. In a study of 700 adolescents, researchers found that “compared to families with two natural parents living in the home, adolescents from single-parent families have been found to engage in greater and earlier sexual activity.”
Source: Carol W. Metzler, et al. “The Social Context for Risky Sexual Behavior Among Adolescents,” Journal of Behavioral Medicine 17 (1994).
A myriad of maladies. Fatherless children are at a dramatically greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, suicide, poor educational performance, teen pregnancy, and criminality.
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Health Statistics, Survey on Child Health, Washington, DC, 1993.
Drinking problems. Teenagers living in single-parent households are more likely to abuse alcohol and at an earlier age compared to children reared in two-parent households
Source: Terry E. Duncan, Susan C. Duncan and Hyman Hops, “The Effects of Family Cohesiveness and Peer Encouragement on the Development of Adolescent Alcohol Use: A Cohort-Sequential Approach to the Analysis of Longitudinal Data,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol 55 (1994).
Drug Use: “…the absence of the father in the home affects significantly the behavior of adolescents and results in the greater use of alcohol and marijuana.”
Source: Deane Scott Berman, “Risk Factors Leading to Adolescent Substance Abuse,” Adolescence 30 (1995)
Sexual abuse. A study of 156 victims of child sexual abuse found that the majority of the children came from disrupted or single-parent homes; only 31 percent of the children lived with both biological parents. Although stepfamilies make up only about 10 percent of all families, 27 percent of the abused children lived with either a stepfather or the mother’s boyfriend.
Source: Beverly Gomes-Schwartz, Jonathan Horowitz, and Albert P. Cardarelli, “Child Sexual Abuse Victims and Their Treatment,” U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Child Abuse. Researchers in Michigan determined that “49 percent of all child abuse cases are committed by single mothers.”
Source: Joan Ditson and Sharon Shay, “A Study of Child Abuse in Lansing, Michigan,” Child Abuse and Neglect, 8 (1984).
Deadly predictions. A family structure index — a composite index based on the annual rate of children involved in divorce and the percentage of families with children present that are female-headed — is a strong predictor of suicide among young adult and adolescent white males.
Source: Patricia L. McCall and Kenneth C. Land, “Trends in White Male Adolescent, Young-Adult and Elderly Suicide: Are There Common Underlying Structural Factors?” Social Science Research 23, 1994.
High risk. Fatherless children are at dramatically greater risk of suicide.
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Health Statistics, Survey on Child Health, Washington, DC, 1993.
Suicidal Tendencies. In a study of 146 adolescent friends of 26 adolescent suicide victims, teens living in single-parent families are not only more likely to commit suicide but also more likely to suffer from psychological disorders, when compared to teens living in intact families.
Source: David A. Brent, et al. “Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in Peers of Adolescent Suicide Victims: Predisposing Factors and Phenomenology.” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 34, 1995.
Confused identities. Boys who grow up in father-absent homes are more likely that those in father-present homes to have trouble establishing appropriate sex roles and gender identity.
Source: P.L. Adams, J.R. Milner, and N.A. Schrepf, Fatherless Children, New York, Wiley Press, 1984.
Psychiatric Problems. In 1988, a study of preschool children admitted to New Orleans hospitals as psychiatric patients over a 34-month period found that nearly 80 percent came from fatherless homes.
Source: Jack Block, et al. “Parental Functioning and the Home Environment in Families of Divorce,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 27 (1988)
Emotional distress. Children living with a never-married mother are more likely to have been treated for emotional problems.
Source: L. Remez, “Children Who Don’t Live with Both Parents Face Behavioral Problems,” Family Planning Perspectives (January/February 1992).
Uncooperative kids. Children reared by a divorced or never-married mother are less cooperative and score lower on tests of intelligence than children reared in intact families. Statistical analysis of the behavior and intelligence of these children revealed “significant detrimental effects” of living in a female-headed household. Growing up in a female-headed household remained a statistical predictor of behavior problems even after adjusting for differences in family income.
Source: Greg L. Duncan, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Pamela Kato Klebanov, “Economic Deprivation and Early Childhood Development,” Child Development 65 (1994).
Unstable families, unstable lives. Compared to peers in two-parent homes, black children in single-parent households are more likely to engage in troublesome behavior, and perform poorly in school.
Source: Tom Luster and Hariette Pipes McAdoo, “Factors Related to the Achievement and Adjustment of Young African-American Children.” Child Development 65 (1994): 1080-1094
Beyond class lines. Even controlling for variations across groups in parent education, race and other child and family factors, 18- to 22-year-olds from disrupted families were twice as likely to have poor relationships with their mothers and fathers, to show high levels of emotional distress or problem behavior, [and] to have received psychological help.
Source: Nicholas Zill, Donna Morrison, and Mary Jo Coiro, “Long Term Effects of Parental Divorce on Parent-Child Relationships, Adjustment and Achievement in Young Adulthood.” Journal of Family Psychology 7 (1993).
Fatherly influence. Children with fathers at home tend to do better in school, are less prone to depression and are more successful in relationships. Children from one-parent families achieve less and get into trouble more than children from two parent families.
Source: One Parent Families and Their Children: The School’s Most Significant Minority, conducted by The Consortium for the Study of School Needs of Children from One Parent Families, co sponsored by the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the Institute for Development of Educational Activities, a division of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, Arlington, VA., 1980
Divorce disorders. Children whose parents separate are significantly more likely to engage in early sexual activity, abuse drugs, and experience conduct and mood disorders. This effect is especially strong for children whose parents separated when they were five years old or younger.
Source: David M. Fergusson, John Horwood and Michael T. Lynsky, “Parental Separation, Adolescent Psychopathology, and Problem Behaviors,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 33 (1944).
Troubled marriages, troubled kids. Compared to peers living with both biological parents, sons and daughters of divorced or separated parents exhibited significantly more conduct problems. Daughters of divorced or separated mothers evidenced significantly higher rates of internalizing problems, such as anxiety or depression.
Source: Denise B. Kandel, Emily Rosenbaum and Kevin Chen, “Impact of Maternal Drug Use and Life Experiences on Preadolescent Children Born to Teenage Mothers,” Journal of Marriage and the Family56 (1994).
Hungry for love. “Father hunger” often afflicts boys age one and two whose fathers are suddenly and permanently absent. Sleep disturbances, such as trouble falling asleep, nightmares, and night terrors frequently begin within one to three months after the father leaves home.
Source: Alfred A. Messer, “Boys Father Hunger: The Missing Father Syndrome,” Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality, January 1989.
Disturbing news: Children of never-married mothers are more than twice as likely to have been treated for an emotional or behavioral problem.
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Health Statistics, National Health Interview Survey, Hyattsille, MD, 1988
Poor and in trouble: A 1988 Department of Health and Human Services study found that at every income level except the very highest (over $50,000 a year), children living with never-married mothers were more likely than their counterparts in two-parent families to have been expelled or suspended from school, to display emotional problems, and to engage in antisocial behavior.
Source: James Q. Wilson, “In Loco Parentis: Helping Children When Families Fail Them,” The Brookings Review, Fall 1993.
Fatherless aggression: In a longitudinal study of 1,197 fourth-grade students, researchers observed “greater levels of aggression in boys from mother-only households than from boys in mother-father households.”
Source: N. Vaden-Kierman, N. Ialongo, J. Pearson, and S. Kellam, “Household Family Structure and Children’s Aggressive Behavior: A Longitudinal Study of Urban Elementary School Children,” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 23, no. 5 (1995).
Act now, pay later: “Children from mother-only families have less of an ability to delay gratification and poorer impulse control (that is, control over anger and sexual gratification.) These children also have a weaker sense of conscience or sense of right and wrong.”
Source: E.M. Hetherington and B. Martin, “Family Interaction” in H.C. Quay and J.S. Werry (eds.), Psychopathological Disorders of Childhood. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1979)
Crazy victims: Eighty percent of adolescents in psychiatric hospitals come from broken homes.
Source: J.B. Elshtain, “Family Matters…”, Christian Century, July 1993.
Duh to dead: “The economic consequences of a [father's] absence are often accompanied by psychological consequences, which include higher-than-average levels of youth suicide, low intellectual and education performance, and higher-than-average rates of mental illness, violence and drug use.”
Source: William Galston, Elaine Kamarck. Progressive Policy Institute. 1993
Expelled: Nationally, 15.3 percent of children living with a never-married mother and 10.7 percent of children living with a divorced mother have been expelled or suspended from school, compared to only 4.4 percent of children living with both biological parents.
Source: Debra Dawson, “Family Structure…”, Journal of Marriage and Family, No. 53. 1991.
Violent rejection: Kids who exhibited violent behavior at school were 11 times as likely not to live with their fathers and six times as likely to have parents who were not married. Boys from families with absent fathers are at higher risk for violent behavior than boys from intact families.
Source: J.L. Sheline (et al.), “Risk Factors…”, American Journal of Public Health, No. 84. 1994.
That crowd: Children without fathers or with stepfathers were less likely to have friends who think it’s important to behave properly in school. They also exhibit more problems with behavior and in achieving goals.
Source: Nicholas Zill, C. W. Nord, “Running in Place,” Child Trends, Inc. 1994.
Likeliest to succeed: Kids who live with both biological parents at age 14 are significantly more likely to graduate from high school than those kids who live with a single parent, a parent and step-parent, or neither parent.
Source: G.D. Sandefur (et al.), “The Effects of Parental Marital Status…”, Social Forces, September 1992.
Worse to bad: Children in single-parent families tend to score lower on standardized tests and to receive lower grades in school. Children in single-parent families are nearly twice as likely to drop out of school as children from two-parent families.
Source: J.B. Stedman (et al.), “Dropping Out,” Congressional Research Service Report No 88-417. 1988.
College odds: Children from disrupted families are 20 percent more unlikely to attend college than kids from intact, two-parent families.
Source: J. Wallerstein, Family Law Quarterly, 20. (Summer 1986)
On their own: Kids living in single-parent homes or in step-families report lower educational expectations on the part of their parents, less parental monitoring of school work, and less overall social supervision than children from intact families.
Source: N.M. Astore and S. McLanahan, Americican Sociological Review, No. 56 (1991)
Double-risk: Fatherless children — kids living in homes without a stepfather or without contact with their biological father — are twice as likely to drop out of school.
Source: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Survey on Child Health. (1993)
Repeat, repeat: Nationally, 29.7 percent of children living with a never-married mother and 21.5 percent of children living with a divorced mother have repeated at least one grade in school, compared to 11.6 percent of children living with both biological parents.
Source: Debra Dawson, “Family Structure and Children’s Well-Being,” Journals of Marriage and Family, No. 53. (1991).
Underpaid high achievers: Children from low-income, two-parent families outperform students from high-income, single-parent homes. Almost twice as many high achievers come from two-parent homes as one-parent homes.
Source: “One-Parent Families and Their Children;” Charles F. Kettering Foundation (1990).
Dadless and dumb: At least one-third of children experiencing a parental separation “demonstrated a significant decline in academic performance” persisting at least three years.
Source: L.M.C. Bisnairs (et al.), American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, no. 60 (1990)
Son of Solo: According to a recent study of young, non-custodial fathers who are behind on child support payments, less than half of these men were living with their own father at age 14.
Slip-sliding: Among black children between the ages of 6 to 9 years old, black children in mother-only households scored significantly lower on tests of intellectual ability, than black children living with two parents.
Source: Luster and McAdoo, Child Development 65. 1994.
Dadless dropouts: After taking into account race, socio-economic status, sex, age and ability, high school students from single-parent households were 1.7 times more likely to drop out than were their corresponding counterparts living with both biological parents.
Source: Ralph McNeal, Sociology of Education 88. 1995.
Takes two: Families in which both the child’s biological or adoptive parents are present in the household show significantly higher levels of parental involvement in the child’s school activities than do mother-only families or step-families.
Source: Zill and Nord, “Running in Place.” Child Trends. 1994
Con garden: Forty-three percent of prison inmates grew up in a single-parent household — 39 percent with their mothers, 4 percent with their fathers — and an additional 14 percent lived in households without either biological parent. Another 14 percent had spent at last part of their childhood in a foster home, agency or other juvenile institution.
Source: US Bureau of Justice Statistics, Survey of State Prison Inmates. 1991
Criminal moms, criminal kids: The children of single teenage mothers are more at risk for later criminal behavior. In the case of a teenage mother, the absence of a father also increases the risk of harshness from the mother.
Source: M. Mourash, L. Rucker, Crime and Delinquency 35. 1989.
Rearing rapists: Seventy-two percent of adolescent murderers grew up without fathers. Sixty percent of America’s rapists grew up the same way.
Source: D. Cornell (et al.), Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 5. 1987. And N. Davidson, “Life Without Father,” Policy Review. 1990.
Crime and poverty: The proportion of single-parent households in a community predicts its rate of violent crime and burglary, but the community’s poverty level does not.
Source: D.A. Smith and G.R. Jarjoura, “Social Structure and Criminal Victimization,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 25. 1988.
Marriage matters: Only 13 percent of juvenile delinquents come from families in which the biological mother and father are married to each other. By contract, 33 percent have parents who are either divorced or separated and 44 percent have parents who were never married.
Source: Wisconsin Dept. of Health and Social Services, April 1994.
No good time: Compared to boys from intact, two-parent families, teenage boys from disrupted families are not only more likely to be incarcerated for delinquent offenses, but also to manifest worse conduct while incarcerated.
Source: M Eileen Matlock et al., “Family Correlates of Social Skills…” Adolescence 29. 1994.
Count ‘em: Seventy percent of juveniles in state reform institutions grew up in single- or no-parent situations.
Source: Alan Beck et al., Survey of Youth in Custody, 1987, US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1988.
The Main Thing: The relationship between family structure and crime is so strong that controlling for family configuration erases the relationship between race and crime and between low income and crime. This conclusion shows up time and again in the literature.
Source: E. Kamarck, William Galston, Putting Children First, Progressive Policy Inst. 1990
Examples: Teenage fathers are more likely than their childless peers to commit and be convicted of illegal activity, and their offenses are of a more serious nature.
Source: M.A. Pirog-Good, “Teen Father and the Child Support System,” in Paternity Establishment, Institute for research on Poverty, Univ. of Wisconsin. 1992.
The ‘hood The likelihood that a young male will engage in criminal activity doubles if he is raised without a father and triples if he lives in a neighborhood with a high concentration of single-parent families.
Source: A. Anne Hill, June O’Neill, “Underclass Behaviors in the United States,” CUNY, Baruch College. 1993
Bringing the war back home The odds that a boy born in America in 1974 will be murdered are higher than the odds that a serviceman in World War II would be killed in combat.
Source: US Sen. Phil Gramm, 1995
Get ahead at home and at work: Fathers who cared for their children intellectual development and their adolescent’s social development were more like to advance in their careers, compared to men who weren’t involved in such activities.
Source: J. Snarey, How Fathers Care for the Next Generation.Harvard Univ. Press.
Diaper dads: In 1991, about 20 percent of preschool children were cared for by their fathers — both married and single. In 1988, the number was 15 percent.
Source: M. O’Connell, “Where’s Papa? Father’s Role in Child Care,” Population Reference Bureau. 1993.
Without leave: Sixty-three percent of 1500 CEOs and human resource directors said it was not reasonable for a father to take a leave after the birth of a child.
Source: J.H. Pleck, “Family Supportive Employer Policies,” Center for research in Women. 1991.
Get a job: The number of men who complain that work conflicts with their family responsibilities rose from 12 percent in 1977 to 72 percent in 1989. Meanwhile, 74 percent of men prefer a “daddy track” job to a “fast track” job.
Source: James Levine, The Fatherhood Project.
Long-distance dads: Twenty-six percent of absent fathers live in a different state than their children.
Source: US Bureau of the Census, Statistical Brief . 1991.
Cool Dad of the Week: Among fathers who maintain contact with their children after a divorce, the pattern of the relationship between father-and-child changes. They begin to behave more like relatives than like parents. Instead of helping with homework, nonresident dads are more likely to take the kids shopping, to the movies, or out to dinner. Instead of providing steady advice and guidance, divorced fathers become “treat dads.”
Source: F. Furstenberg, A. Cherlin, Divided Families . Harvard Univ. Press. 1991.
Older’s not wiser: While 57 percent of unwed dads with kids no older than two visit their children more than once a week, by the time the kid’s seven and a half, only 23 percent are in frequent contact with their children.
Source: R. Lerman and Theodora Ooms, Young Unwed Fathers . 1993.
Ten years after: Ten years after the breakup of a marriage, more than two-thirds of kids report not having seen their father for a year.
Source: National Commission on Children, Speaking of Kids. 1991.
No such address: More than half the kids who don’t live with their father have never been in their father’s house.
Source: F. Furstenberg, A. Cherlin, Divided Families. Harvard Univ. Press. 1991.
Dadless years: About 40 percent of the kids living in fatherless homes haven’t seen their dads in a year or more. Of the rest, only one in five sleeps even one night a month at the father’s home. And only one in six sees their father once or more per week.
Source: F. Furstenberg, A. Cherlin, Divided Families. Harvard Univ. Press. 1991.
Measuring up? According to a 1992 Gallup poll, more than 50 percent of all adults agreed that fathers today spend less time with their kids than their fathers did with them.
Source: Gallup national random sample conducted for the National Center for Fathering, April 1992.
Father unknown. Of kids living in single-mom households, 35 percent never see their fathers, and another 24 percent see their fathers less than once a month.
Source: J.A. Selzer, “Children’s Contact with Absent Parents,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 50 (1988).
Missed contact: In a study of 304 young adults, those whose parents divorced after they left home had significantly less contact with their fathers than adult children who parents remained married. Weekly contact with their children dropped from 78 percent for still-married fathers to 44 percent for divorced fathers.
Source: William Aquilino, “Later Life Parental Divorce and Widowhood,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 56. 1994.
Commercial breaks: The amount of time a father spends with his child — one-on-one — averages less than 10 minutes a day.
Source: J. P. Robinson, et al., “The Rhythm of Everyday Life.” Westview Press. 1988
High risk: Overall, more than 75 percent of American children are at risk because of paternal deprivation. Even in two-parent homes, fewer than 25 percent of young boys and girls experience an average of at least one hour a day of relatively individualized contact with their fathers.
Source: Henry Biller, “The Father Factor…” a paper based on presentations during meetings with William Galston, Deputy Director, Domestic Policy, Clinton White House, December 1993 and April 1994.
Knock, knock: Of children age 5 to 14, 1.6 million return home to houses where there is no adult present.
Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Who’s Minding the Kids?” Statistical Brief. April 1994.
Who said talk’s cheap? Almost 20 percent of sixth- through twelfth-graders have not had a good conversation lasting for at least 10 minutes with at least one of their parents in more than a month.
Source: Peter Benson, “The Troubled Journey.” Search Institute. 1993.
Justified guilt. A 1990 L.A. Times poll found that 57 percent of all fathers and 55 percent of all mothers feel guilty about not spending enough time with their children.
Source: Lynn Smith and Bob Sipchen, “Two Career Family Dilemma,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 12, 1990.
Who are you, mister? In 1965, parents on average spent approximately 30 hours a week with their kids. By 1985, the amount of time had fallen to 17 hours.
Source: William Mattox, “The Parent Trap.” Policy Review. Winter, 1991.
Waiting Works: Only eight percent of those who finished high school, got married before having a child, and waited until age 20 to have that child were living in poverty in 1992.
Source: William Galston, “Beyond the Murphy Brown Debate.” Institute for Family Values. Dec. 10, 1993.
63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes (Source: U.S. D.H.H.S., Bureau of the Census)
90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes
85% of all children that exhibit behavioral disorders come from fatherless homes (Source: Center for Disease Control)
80% of rapists motivated with displaced anger come from fatherless homes (Source: Criminal Justice & Behavior, Vol 14, p. 403-26, 1978.)
71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes (Source: National Principals Association Report on the State of High Schools.)
75% of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers come from fatherless homes (Source: Rainbows for all God`s Children.)
70% of juveniles in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes (Source: U.S. Dept. of Justice, Special Report, Sept 1988)
85% of all youths sitting in prisons grew up in a fatherless home (Source: Fulton Co. Georgia jail populations, Texas Dept. of Corrections 1992)
The State of Fatherhood
37.9% of fathers have no access/visitation rights. (Source: p.6, col.II, para. 6, lines 4 & 5, Census Bureau P-60, #173, Sept 1991.)
“40% of mothers reported that they had interfered with the non-custodial father’s visitation on at least one occasion, to punish the ex-spouse.” (Source: p. 449, col. II, lines 3-6, (citing Fulton) Frequency of visitation by Divorced Fathers; Differences in Reports by Fathers and Mothers. Sanford Braver et al, Am. J. of Orthopsychiatry, 1991.)
“Overall, approximately 50% of mothers “see no value in the father`s continued contact with his children….” (Source: Surviving the Breakup, Joan Kelly & Judith Wallerstein, p. 125)
Only 11% of mothers value their husband’s input when it comes to handling problems with their kids. Teachers & doctors rated 45%, and close friends & relatives rated 16%. (Source: EDK Associates survey of 500 women for Redbook Magazine. Redbook, November 1994, p. 36)
“The former spouse (mother) was the greatest obstacle to having more frequent contact with the children.” (Source: Increasing our understanding of fathers who have infrequent contact with their children, James Dudley, Family Relations, Vol. 4, p. 281, July 1991.)
“A clear majority (70%) of fathers felt that they had too little time with their children.” (Source: Visitation and the Noncustodial Father, Mary Ann Kock & Carol Lowery, Journal of Divorce, Vol. 8, No. 2, p. 54, Winter 1984.)
“Very few of the children were satisfied with the amount of contact with their fathers, after divorce.” (Source: Visitation and the Noncustodial Father, Koch & Lowery, Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, Vol. 8, No. 2, p. 50, Winter 1984.)
“Feelings of anger towards their former spouses hindered effective involvement on the part of fathers; angry mothers would sometimes sabotage father’s efforts to visit their children.” (Source: Ahrons and Miller, Am. Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 63. p. 442, July `93.)
“Mothers may prevent visits to retaliate against fathers for problems in their marital or post-marital relationship.” (Source: Seltzer, Shaeffer & Charing, Journal of Marriage & the Family, Vol. 51, p. 1015, November 1989.)
In a study: “Visitational Interference – A National Study” by Ms. J Annette Vanini, M.S.W. and Edward Nichols, M.S.W., it was found that 77% of non-custodial fathers are NOT able to “visit” their children, as ordered by the court, as a result of “visitation interference” perpetuated by the custodial parent. In other words, non-compliance with court ordered visitation is three times the problem of non-compliance with court ordered child support and impacts the children of divorce even more. (Originally published Sept. 1992)
Information from multiple sources show that only 10% of all noncustodial fathers fit the “deadbeat dad” category: 90% of the fathers with joint custody paid the support due. Fathers with visitation rights pay 79.1%; and 44.5% of those with NO visitation rights still financially support their children. (Source: Census Bureau report. Series P-23, No. 173).
Additionally, of those not paying support, 66% are not doing so because they lack the financial resources to pay (Source: GAO report: GAO/HRD-92-39 FS).
52% of fathers who owe child support earn less than $6,155 per year. (Source: The Poverty Studies Institute at the University of Wisconsin, Madison,1993)
66% of single mothers work less than full time while only 10% of fathers fall into this category. In addition, almost 47% of non-custodial mothers default on support compared with the 27% of fathers who default. (Source: Garansky and Meyer, DHHS Technical Analysis Paper No. 42, 1991).
66% of all support not paid by non-custodial fathers is due to inability to pay. (Source: U.S. General Accounting Office Report, GAO/HRD-92-39FS January 1992).
Total Custodial Mothers: 11,268,000
Total Custodial Fathers: 2,907,000 (Source: Current Population Reports, U.S. Bureau of the Census, Series P-20, No. 458, 1991).
The following is sourced from: Technical Analysis Paper No. 42, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Income Security Policy, Oct. 1991, Authors: Meyer and Garansky.
Custodial mothers who receive a support award: 79.6%
Custodial fathers who receive a support award: 29.9%
Non-custodial mothers who totally default on support: 46.9%
Non-custodial fathers who totally default on support: 26.9%
False accusations of abuse:
160,000 reports of suspected child abuse were reported in 1963. That number exploded to 1.7 million in 1985.
There were more than three million reports of alleged child abuse and neglect in 1995. However, two million of those complaints were without foundation or false! (Source: National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect (NCCAN) Child Maltreatment 1995: Reports From the States to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System)
LIFE WITHOUT FATHER
Â© 2000 By David Popenoe
Excerpted from the book, Life Without Father by David Popenoe
Growing up without a father may be a root cause of many social illsâ€”from crime to academic failure.
The decline of fatherhood is one of the most basic, unexpected and extraordinary trends of our time. Its dimensions can be captured in a single statistic: In just three decades, between 1960 and 1990, the percentage of children living apart from their biological fathers more than doubled, from 17 percent to 36 percent. By the turn of the century, nearly 50 percent of American children may be going to sleep each evening without being able to say good night to their dads.
No one predicted this trend; few researchers or government agencies have monitored it; and it is not widely discussed, even today. But the decline of fatherhood is a major force behind many of the most disturbing problems that plague American society: crime; premature sexuality and out-of-wedlock births to teenagers; deteriorating educational achievement; depression, substance abuse and alienation among adolescents; and the growing number of women and children in poverty.
Even as this calamity unfolds, our cultural view of fatherhood, itself, is changing. Few people doubt the fundamental importance of mothers. But fathers? More and more, the question of whether fathers are really necessary is being raised. Many would answer no, or maybe not. And to the degree that fathers are still thought necessary, fatherhood is said by many to be merely a social role that others can play: mothers, partners, stepfathers, uncles and aunts, grandparents. Perhaps the script can even be rewritten and the role changedâ€”or dropped.
There was a time in the past when fatherlessness was far more common than it is today, but death was to blame, not divorce, desertion and out-of-wedlock births. Almost all of today’s fatherless children have fathers who are alive, well, and perfectly capable of shouldering the responsibilities of fatherhood. Who would ever have thought that so many men would choose to relinquish them. Not so long ago, the change in the cause of fatherlessness was dismissed as irrelevant in many quarters, including among social scientists. Children, it was said, are merely losing their parents in a different way than they used to. You don’t hear that very much anymore. A surprising finding of recent social science research is that it is decidedly worse for a child to lose a father in the modern, voluntary way than through death. The children of divorced and never-married mothers are less successful in life by almost every measure than the children of widowed mothers. The replacement of death by divorce as the prime Cause of fatherlessness, then is a monumental setback in the history of childhood.
Until the 1960s, the falling death rate and the rising divorce rate neutralized each other. In 1900, the percentage of all American children living in single-parent families was 8.5 percent. By 1960, it had increased to just 9.1 percent.
But then the decline in the death rate slowed, and the divorce rate skyrocketed. “The scale of marital breakdowns in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent that I know of, and seems unique,” says Lawrence Stone, the noted Princeton University family historian. “There has been nothing like it for the last 2,000 years, and probably longer.”
Consider what has happened to children. Most estimates are that only about 50 percent of the children born during the 1970 84 “baby bust” period will still live with their natural parents by age 17â€”a staggering drop from nearly 80 percent.
In theory, divorce need not mean disconnection. In reality, it often does. One large survey in the late 1980s found that about one in five divorced fathers had not seen his children in the past year, and less than half of divorced fathers saw their children more than several times a year. A 1981 survey of adolescents who were living apart from their fathers found that 52 percent had not seen them at all in more than a year; only 16 percent saw their fathers as often as once a week.
The picture grows worse. Just as divorce has overtaken death as the leading cause of fatherlessness, out-of-wedlock births are expected to surpass divorce later in the 1990s.
Across time and cultures, fathers have always been considered essentialâ€”and not just for their sperm. Marriage and the nuclear familyâ€” mother, father and childrenâ€”are the most universal social institutions in existence. In no society has the birth of children out of wedlock been the cultures norm. To the contrary, a concern for the legitimacy of children is nearly universal.
At the same time, being a father is universally problematic for men. While mothers the world over bear and nurture their young with an intrinsic acknowledgment and, most commonly, acceptance of their role the process of taking on the role of father is often filled with conflict and doubt.
The source of this sex-role difference can be plainly stated. Men are not biologically as attuned to being committed fathers as women are to being committed mothers. The evolutionary logic is clear. Women, who can bear only a limited number of children, have a great incentive to invest their energy in rearing children, while men, who can father many offspring, do not. Left culturally unregulated, men’s sexual behavior can be promiscuous, their paternity casual, their commitment to families weak.
This is not to say that the role of father is foreign to male nature. Far from it. Evolutionary scientists tell us that the development of the fathering capacity and high paternal investments in offspringâ€”features not common among our primate relativesâ€”have been sources of enormous evolutionary advantage for human beings.
In recognition of the fatherhood problem, human cultures have used sanctions to bind men to their children, and of course the institution of marriage has been culture’s chief vehicle.
In my many years as a sociologist I have found few other bodies of evidence that lean so much in one direction as this one: On the whole two parentsâ€”a father and a motherâ€”are better for a child than one parent. There are, to be sure, many factors that complicate this simple proposition. We all know of a two-parent family that is truly dysfunctionalâ€”the proverbial family from hell. A child can certainly be raised to a fulfilling adulthood by one loving parent who is wholly devoted to the child’s well-being. But such exceptions do not invalidate the rule.
The collapse of children’s well being in the United States has reached breathtaking proportions. Juvenile violent crime has increased sixfold, from 16,000 arrests in 1960 to 96,000 in 1992. Eating disorders and rates of depression have soared among adolescent girls.
Teen suicide has tripled. Alcohol and drug abuse among teen-agers, although it has leveled off in recent years, continues at a very high rate. Poverty has shifted from the elderly to the young.
One can think of many explanations for these unhappy developments: the growth of commercialism and consumerism, the influence of television and the mass media, the decline of religion, the widespread availability of guns and addictive drugs, and the decay of social order and neighborhood relationships. None of these causes should be dismissed. But the evidence is now strong that the absence of fathers from the lives of children is one of the most important causes.
The most tangible and immediate consequence of fatherlessness for children is the loss of economic resources. By the best recent estimates, the income of the household in which a child remains after a divorce instantly declines by about 21 percent per capita on average, while expenses tend to go up.
What do fathers do? Much of what they contribute to the growth of their children, of course, is simply the result of being a second adult in the home. Bringing up children is demanding, stressful and often exhausting. Two adults cannot only support and spell each other-they can offset each other’s deficiencies and build on each others strengths.
Recent research has given us much deeperâ€”and more surprisingâ€”insights into the father’s role in child rearing. It shows that in almost all of their interactions with children, fathers do things a little differently from mothers. What fathers doâ€”their special parenting styleâ€”is not only highly complementary to what mothers do but is by all indications important in its own right for optimum child rearing.
For example, an often-overlooked dimension of fathering is play. From their children’s birth through adolescence, fathers tend to emphasize play more than caretaking. The father’s style of play seems to have unusual significance. It is likely to be both physically stimulating and exciting. With older children it involves more physical games and teamwork requiring the competitive testing of physical and mental skills.
Mothers tend to spend more time playing with their children, but theirs is a different kind of play. Mothers’ play tends to take place more at the child’s level. Mothers provide the child with the opportunity to direct the play, to be in charge, to proceed at the child’s own pace.
At play and in other realms fathers tend to stress competition challenge, initiative, risk-taking and independence.
Mothers, as caretakers, stress emotional security and personal safety. Becoming a mature and competent adult involves the integration of two often-contradictory human desires: for communion, or the feeling of being included, connected, and related, and for agency, which entails independence, individuality, and self-fulfillment. One without the other is a denuded and impaired humanity, an incomplete realization of human potential.
Just as cultural forms can be discarded, dismantled and declared obsolete, so can they be reinvented. In order to restore marriage and reinstate fathers in the lives of their children, we are somehow going to have to undo he cultural shift of the past few decades toward radical individualism.
Marriage must be re-established as a strong social institution. The father’s role must also be redefined in a way that neglects neither historical models nor the unique attributes of modern societies, the new roles for women, and the special qualities that men bring to child rearing.
Many people believe that fatherlessness is related to delinquency and violence, and the weight of research evidence supports this belief.
Having a father at home is no guarantee that a youngster won’t commit a crime, but it appears to be an excellent form of prevention.
Research shows that:
â€¢ 60 percent of America’s rapists came from fatherless homes.
â€¢ 72 percent of adolescent murderers grew up without a father.
â€¢ 70 percent of long-term prison inmates are fatherless.
source: “Life without Father,” copyright 1996 by David Popenoe. Reprinted by permission of the Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc.
Â© 2000 David Popenoe
U.S Census Data: Children of Single Parents, How They Fare http://www.census.gov/prod/3/97pubs/cb-9701.pdf