Social Costs of the Vanishing-Father

Far too many of Alabama’s children are in trouble. They live in poverty; they lack access to health care; and they are caught up in the State’s overcrowded juvenile justice system. Much of this juvenile social pathology stems from homes with vanished fathers.

According to Professor Donald Bogie at Auburn University in Montgomery’s Center for Demographic Studies, in 1990, 109,000 families in Alabama (21%), were headed by mothers with no fathers present. These numbers are up from 1980 when there were 90,000 such families (17%). The great majority of the children in these homes will grow up without a meaningful relationship with their fathers.

The number of children in female-headed, single-parent households increases every year due to births out of wedlock, divorce and desertion. In 1960, Alabama experienced 9,000 births to unmarried mothers. In 1993, there were 20,500.

To these numbers, add the children who lose their fathers through divorce and desertion. In Alabama in 1993, there were 40,000 marriages and 27,000 divorces. Nationally, 40 percent of first marriages end in divorce. There is no sure way to count the number of fathers who simply walk away from their families (no family abandonment data exists).

The social costs stemming from these vanished fathers are high. Wade F. Horn, of the National Fatherhood Initiative, writes that, “85 percent of the prisoners, 78 percent of high school dropouts, 82 percent of teenage girls who become pregnant, [and] the majority of drug and alcohol abusers all come from single mother-headed households.”

Syndicated columnist, Bob Herbert, writes that children who grow up in fatherless homes are, “far more likely to be unemployed and to commit crimes. In short, they are far more likely than the offspring of two-parent families to spread misery and tragedy among themselves and others.” They are also more likely to have children out of wedlock themselves.

The vanishing father is not just a hardship to the children involved. He is a cause of many of our social pathologies. We are all affected, directly or indirectly.

What are we doing about it? Not much. In fact, we have done some things to make the problem of the vanishing father worse. For example, until recently Alabama denied welfare benefits to families with fathers present. Only by leaving could a father enable his family to qualify for welfare.

Perhaps divorce is too easy. No-fault divorce laws do little to encourage families to stay together. The new Louisiana model, allowing couples to choose a committed marriage, may be worth considering. Those opting for committed marriages have a much harder time getting divorced.

State and federal agencies devote a great deal of effort to tracking down vanished fathers. They use both police forces and tax records. But the effort is totally geared toward forcing “deadbeat dads” to pay up child support, as though money was the entire problem for fatherless families.

Money does matter, of course, although the state keeps much child support money as reimbursement for welfare payments to the families. But money will not solve the problems of children who need their father. Children raised in poverty with both parents in the home are much more likely to succeed in later life than children raised in poverty by a mother alone.

Children need their father for all kinds of fundamental, emotional reasons. Boys need rough and tumble play, and a male role model. Girls need fathers to experience a loving relationship with a man. This is important for girls when they start looking for a mate, Dr. Horn says, “because if they have the expectation that a man should be like dad, they will be more likely to hold out for that positive model.”

When we find absent fathers, judges should look at the total picture of paternal neglect, not just the financial aspects. They should provide incentives to fathers to share themselves with their children, as well as money.

We use tax incentives for all kinds of social reasons such as encouraging home buying, discouraging smoking, and promoting education. Why not develop tax incentives to encourage and reward two-parent families and penalize vanishing fathers?

We hear lots of rhetoric about children. We are told how important they are for the future of the nation. Yet increasing numbers of our children, rich and poor, are denied the important love and support of their fathers teamed with their mothers in a secure home. In this denial, they are being poorly prepared for life as responsible, mature, loving parents, citizens and taxpayers.

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Originally Published: September 1997, Alabama Forum

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