The Fatherhood Crisis: Time for a New Look?

Policy Reports | Social

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

The Growing Problem of Fatherlessness

Figure I - Percentage of Children Living with Divorced and Never-Married Mothers

Federal statistics show an alarming long-term growth in the proportion of children living in fatherless households. Research has shown the negative effects on children and society of living without fathers.

The Growth of Fatherless Families. The proportion of children under 18 years living with their mothers only as a result of divorce or lack of marriage has risen continuously since 1970.3 [See Figure I.] By 2000, nearly a third of children under the age of 18 lived with only one parent, usually their mother.4 [See Figure II.] Figure III shows the reason why:5

  • More than half of the children who live with one parent do so because of the break-up of a marriage - of those children living with only one parent, 38 percent live in a single parent household due to divorce, and 19 percent due to parents separating.
  • Another third (35 percent) live with a never-married parent, most of whom are single mothers.
  • Just 8 percent of children live in single parent households for other reasons, such as widowhood (4 percent).

In fact, these Census Bureau statistics do not include the huge number of children living with remarried mothers, and therefore without their biological father. The number living without one of their original parents is almost certainly significantly higher than the 18.9 million cited in Figure II. Some estimates put the likely number at 23 million to 25 million or even more.

Figure II - Who Children Live With

This increase in single parent households is due to a number of factors, including the availability of welfare, the growing acceptance of single motherhood, childbearing outside of marriage and higher divorce rates. But the increase in divorce is the most important factor.

Divorce and Children. The number of divorces in the United States involving children doubled from 1960 to the late 1990s as the rate of divorce more than doubled:6

  • 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.7

By the age of 18, more than 20 percent of American children will experience the divorce of their parents. Most of those children will then live in fatherless homes, with their mother having sole custody.

Crisis of Fatherless Children. Virtually every major social pathology - including violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, truancy, teen pregnancy and suicide - is strongly associated with fatherlessness.8 For example:

Figure III - Reasons Children Live with Only One Parent
  • A majority of prisoners, juvenile detention inmates, high school dropouts, pregnant teenagers, adolescent murderers and rapists all come from fatherless homes.9
  • The prevalence of delinquency among children from broken homes is 10 percent to 15 percent higher than among children from intact homes.10
  • Researchers have found that "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."11
  • An estimated 70 percent of the juveniles in state reform institutions, 72 percent of adolescent murderers, and 60 percent of America's rapists grew up without fathers.12 
  • After taking into account race, socioeconomic status, sex, age and ability, teenagers from single-parent households are 1.7 times more likely to drop out of high school than their corresponding counterparts living with both biological parents."13

The connection of social pathologies with fatherless homes is so strong that some researchers have concluded that the likelihood of children's involvement in crime is determined by the extent of both parents' involvement in their children's lives, rather than income or race.14

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