News & Politics

'State of America's Fathers': A Report Card for Dads

The State of America’s Fathers, a report released Tuesday by Promundo-US and the MensCare campaign, takes an in-depth look at how fathers are coping with various challenges and makes some recommendations on how conditions can be improved.

The Washington Times:

The report found fathers overall have increased the time they spend with their kids by nearly a third over the past three decades, and that the number of men and women who want to share child care responsibilities is at a high point. But while high-income men are celebrated for their involvement with their offspring, men of lower means, many not living with their kids, are “often either valued or stigmatized simply by their ability to pay their way.”

How men experience fatherhood across that economic divide greatly impacts family life.

“Society increasingly encourages upper-middle and upper-income fathers to be highly engaged with their children — with many Fortune 500 companies offering paid parental leave to back this up,” the report said. “On the other end, low-income dads have the least access to paid leave in the country: 95 percent of low-wage workers do not have the option of taking paid family leave through their employer’s policies for the birth of a child or to care for a seriously ill family member.”

As many as half of children don’t live in so-called traditional families with their married biological moms and dads. That norm of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s has given way to what Barker calls “alternative family structures,” including divorced or never-married parents.

Policies and attitudes favor “have” dads over the “have-nots,” he said. Lower-income, less-educated dads are more likely to be nonresident parents who don’t live with their children than are high-income, well-educated dads. He noted many fall behind in their obligations to their children not because they don’t want to pay, but because the expectations are unrealistically high. They are challenged by poverty, lack of education and fewer opportunities more often than they are shiftless, he said, calling them “not deadbeat fathers, but dead-broke ones.”

Barker noted 2.7 million children in America have lives further complicated by having a parent, usually a father, who is incarcerated or in some kind of mandated program such as substance abuse treatment or mental health.

Difference in parenting quality between the well-educated, higher-earning fathers and the less-educated and poorer is complex, said Barker, not one-size-fits-all. “We do know that some father involvement is better than none,” across incomes and education levels, absent abuse, he said, adding that parenting skills can be taught and the key factor is a warm, nurturing father.

The biggest change in fatherhood in my lifetime has been a larger emphasis on fathers becoming more involved in their children’s lives. The role of the father in the family used to be as breadwinner and disciplinarian. The nurturing was left to the mother, who in almost all cases was at home all day to fulfill that role.

Obviously that’s not the case anymore and fathers have moved in admirably to fill the breach. The other big change in fatherhood that’s hugely significant in my mind is mentioned above. So called “blended families” are a challenge for kids who are sometimes caught in the middle of custody issues. To my mind, this puts undue stress on children.

One of the recommendations in the report is that parents should have joint physical custody of the children except in cases of violence or neglect. This seems eminently practical, and prevents parents from using children as clubs in divorce actions.

Other recommendations in the report include a national paid family leave bill, the adoption of a “living wage,” and criminal justice reform.

Overall, American fatherhood is in pretty good shape as dads adapt to new challenges and new situations impacting the family.