The Fatherhood Crisis: Time for a New Look?

Policy Reports | Social

No. 267
Wednesday, June 30, 2004
by Stephen Baskerville

Executive Summary

Fatherhood, marriage and related issues of family structure now dominate the domestic policy agenda. In 1995, President Bill Clinton stated, "The single biggest social problem in our society may be the growing absence of fathers from their children's homes, because it contributes to so many other social problems." By 2000, nearly a third of children under the age of 18 lived with only one parent, usually their mother.

While Clinton and other politicians attributed the growing absence of fathers from their children's homes to abandonment, there is no evidence that desertion is increasing. The absence of fathers from the home is principally due to the increase in divorce:

  • Half of first marriages and 60 percent of second marriages in the United States now end in divorce.
  • About 1.2 million divorces occur each year, involving approximately 1 million children.
  • More than half of the children who live with one parent do so because of the break-up of a marriage.

Fatherless families are a growing problem, but the principal cause is not bad behavior or the fault of fathers; it is government policies with respect to divorce and child support. Beginning with California in 1969, every state has adopted "no-fault" divorce, which may be more properly called unilateral divorce - one partner can end a marriage without penalty and without the consent of the other party.

President Clinton and others charged that "deadbeat dads" are willfully failing to meet child support obligations. Consequently, new laws were passed to garnish noncustodial parents' wages and tax refunds, and criminal penalties for nonpayment were stiffened. These policies continue under the current administration. However, child support levels are set according to inflexible rules that do not consider individual circumstances and are difficult to adjust. Although most fathers make their child support payments, some are simply unable to do so.

A divorce decree is only the beginning of the government's involvement in a family's life; until the children reach the age of majority, their lives, and their parents', are subject to regulation by a growing apparatus of child support enforcement, family courts and social welfare agencies. This system controls the involvement a noncustodial parent has in his children's lives. For example, a father may be denied access to his children if he does not undergo psychological counseling at his own expense.

If couples were able to make their own marriage or divorce contracts, they could improve the welfare of both parents (and the children), compared to court decrees or the straight-jacket of one-size-fits-all legislation. But for contractual solutions to work, the law must specify the parameters of agreements that the courts must enforce. Provisions of private marriage or pre-nuptial agreements governing children are not enforceable under current law. The child custody system could be reformed through joint custody or "shared parenting" provisions. These proposals have to be debated and enacted state by state. On the national level, the problem could be addressed as one of constitutional rights to due process, and parents' right to involvement in their children's lives.

Read Article as PDF