The Plague of Fatherlessness

Lynn Wardle
By Lynn Wardle | March 18, 2015 | 1:13 PM EDT

In this May 2005 picture, Toni Gates, a 24-year-old single mother, sits in the living room of her home in Milwaukee. She works part time as a nursing assistant and earns about $500 every two weeks. "It is sort of hard to make ends meet," she said. "You've got the kids, you try to make it home and make dinner and get everything done for the next day." (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Psychologist Frank J. Moncher, Ph.D. has written thoughtfully about the crisis of fatherlessness in modern society.  Concern about fatherlessness, he states, “is supported by the science of parenting and family life, where the evidence overwhelmingly shows that parental involvement makes a positive difference, for example, in educational achievement (this finding transcends, by the way, income level or cultural background).”

The absence of fathers from the lives of children has drawn the attention of many respected world leaders, as well.  For example, Pope Francis has spoken about the problem of men whose obsession with their work, their hobbies, their marital problems or other pastimes causes them to “forget even the family, neglecting their children … not playing with (them), and not spending time with (them).”

Fathers’ parenting failures and absences have significant social costs as well as long-term inter-generational consequences.   As Pope Francis has warned, many of “[t]he transgressions of children and adolescents can be attributed to this neglect, to missing examples and authoritative guides in their daily life, the lack of closeness and love on the part of fathers.”

Dr. Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist, emphasized the same concern when he wrote: Kids who grow up without a father never experience that special sense of security and the enhanced feeling of belonging that come from having a father in the home. So they seek it elsewhere. They don’t get that sweet feeling of triumph that comes from a father’s approval, or the warmth of the old man’s hug, or the wisdom to be drawn from his discipline.”

Dr. Moncher calls for “fathers to return to active mentoring, guiding, and connected relationships with their children.  The common barriers of time, work, and, for some, cultural and language complications, must be recognized and overcome … .”  His comments remind us that parenting cannot be done adequately on a “when-there-is-time” basis.  It requires commitment, planning, scheduling and sacrifice as well as love, patience and fun.

Yet fatherless in the U.S. remains at historic highs.  According to a U.S. Census Bureau chart found on The Heritage Foundation's, over forty percent (40%) of all children born in American in 2010 were born to unwed mothers.  That means that from their birth, nearly half of all children are legally fatherless – with no father committed to them or to their families. For African-American children, the tragedy is even greater: 72.8 percent (72.8%) of Black children are born out of marriage.

The problem reduces but does not disappear as the child grows. Tragically, over one-quarter of all American children under age eighteen live with a single parent.  Another U.S. Census Bureau chart on The Heritage Foundation's shows that most of them – 23.6 percent (23.6%) of all American children – are living with their mother only.  Only 68.9 percent (68.9%) of American children under age eighteen are living with both of their parents.

The relationship between fatherlessness and adolescent anti-social behavior and family structure has long been known.  The respected Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner, in his book “Rebuilding the Nest: A New Commitment to the American Family,” reported that even after controlling for such factors as low income, “children growing up in single-parent households are at a greater risk for experiencing a variety of behavioral and educational problems, including … criminal acts.” David Blankenhorn, another commentator and author of the book “Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem,” observed that fatherlessness is “the engine driving our most urgent social problems, from crimes to adolescent pregnancy to child abuse to domestic violence against women.”  In fact, the “relationship between crime and one-parent families” is “so strong that controlling for family configuration erases the relationships between race and crime and between low income and crime.

Another recent study by Wade C. Mackey & Ronald S. Immerman, in their academic journal article “The Presence of the Social Father in Inhibiting Young Men’s Violence,” confirmed that the “presence of a residential and biological father reduces the likelihood of violent behavior by his sons,” and “data analyzed across the U.S. indicate that father absence, rather than poverty, [is] the stronger predictor of young men’s violent behavior.”

According to M. Anne Hill & June O’Neill, in their book “Underclass Behaviors in the United States: Measurement and Analysis of Determinants,” 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.”

It is very clear that fatherlessness imposes significant costs upon fatherless children individually and collectively, and also upon society. Society could reduce the tragedy by creating legal, economic and social incentives for in-home parenting, and by imposing legal, economic and social dis-incentives for parents who abandon children and fail to exercise regular, reasonable and responsible parenting – including visitation of their children not in their custody.

Visitation by a non-custodial parent has been deemed a parental privilege in family law. Perhaps it is time to reform visitation law to make it clear that regular, responsible parental association and activity with children by the non-custodial parent is also an important social responsibility.  It is a duty not only of non-custodial fathers, but which custodial mothers also have a duty to facilitate.  Making driver licenses dependent upon such behavior and imposing income tax refund intercepts might begin to send a message about responsible parenting that society should communicate.

Lynn D. Wardle is the Bruce C. Hafen Professor of Law at Brigham Young University.  He is author or editor of numerous books and law review articles mostly about family, biomedical ethics and conflict of laws policy issues. His publications present only his personal (not institutional) views.

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