The effects of fatherlessness have been documented from birth through childhood to adulthood. From lower birth weights to higher drop out rates to increased likelihood for incarceration, studies have repeatedly shown the negative effects of contemporary father absence. This is the issue that President Bill Clinton (in 1995) identified as “the single biggest social problem … because it contributes to so many other social problems.” Since then much has been done to understand the consequences of father absence, and the results are controversial but convincing. Fathers are important, if not necessary, for the good of children and the good of society.
Fatherlessness has gained notoriety because of the drastic increase in the number of children living without a father in the past 50 years (from 8% to nearly 30%). The contributing factors have been an increase in divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births. Whereas fatherless families in the past were typically the result of a father’s death, now the overwhelming majority are because of divorce or non-marital births. This situation has raised important questions about the role of the father in child development and social stability.
The politics of fatherlessness has also developed over the years. Conservatives have championed this issue as a call for a return to the “traditional nuclear family”. Liberals have shared a concern for fatherless children, but focus more attention on the efforts and needs of the single mothers left parenting alone. Researchers and politicians debate whether the psychological or economic consequences are more important and whether father absence is the cause or merely associated with social problems. In 2006 nearly $100 billion was spent by the government to help fatherless families.
In the 1960s-80s divorce was the primary cause for the increase in fatherless families. Since then out-of-wedlock birth has surpassed divorce in the creation of new fatherless situations, and the rate of non-marital births is continuing to rise in the United States. Additionally, there are more single mothers and lesbian couples having children through sperm donors or adopting. Our culture is becoming more accepting of this trend, and the divergence of opinions on “the importance of a father” is growing.
Many organizations such as The Mentoring Project and AllPro Dad have formed in recent years to specifically address the problem of father absence and provide support for fathers. The Big Brothers Big Sisters program continues to mentor children in greatest need, including those with only a single parent. These trends give a sense of hope for the future of fatherless children and society as a whole.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What role has your father played in your life? If you have not had a father, then what was your experience like?
What effect do you think a father has on a child’s development and preparedness for adulthood? What are some ways that a child might be negatively affected by growing up with a father?
What are some political solutions to the fatherlessness problem in America? How could the government spend money and resources to support fatherless families and help fathers remain involved with their children?
This topic is specifically addressing fatherlessness, but how do you think motherlessness might affect a child? How are they similar? How are they different?
How do you think a child of a deceased father might differ from a child of a divorced/absent father? How would their economic situations be impacted? How would their emotional responses differ?
Our culture places a very high value on people’s individual rights and freedom to choose how to live. This has led to freedom in allowing (almost) anyone to have children. Do you think women should be limited (by their marital status or sexual orientation) in their ability to adopt children or receive sperm donations?
Divorce and out-of-wedlock births are the most common situations leading to children in fatherless families.
The politics of fatherlessness has gained momentum over the past 50 years, and it is now an important item in political campaigns and the national budget.
Studies need to continue being conducted to determine the effects of father absence in various socio-economic and cultural contexts. Until more studies are published there cannot be certainty about the effects of fatherlessness for all children, but based on the most current research father absence has a negative effect on individuals both economically and emotionally.