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Think. Discuss. Act. Fatherlessness

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Annual Public Costs of Father Absence

Steven L. Nock and Christopher J. Einolf (June 2008) “The One Hundred Billion Dollar Man: The Annual Public Costs of Father Absence”. National Fatherhood Initiative. pp.1-14.


This study estimates at least $99.8 billion was spent by the federal government to support “father-absent homes” in 2006. The authors claim this is a conservative estimate, and the actual cost of fatherlessness to taxpayers is even greater.

Steven Nock was a professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia until his death in 2008. His work focused on the relationship between social science and public policy, especially concerning families in America. This report is dedicated to his memory. Christopher Einolf received a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Virginia in 2006 and is now an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Service at Depaul University.

This study was published by the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI), which was established in 1994 to help fathers remain involved with their children and families. The NFI is a leader in research of fatherlessness in America.

The study begins by documenting the rise of fatherlessness in America in the past 50 years. In 1960 only 8% of children lived without his/her father. In 2006 34% of children lived without his/her biological father, and 23.3% lived with only his/her mother. For the sake of this study, the authors define “father absence” as “families where a biological, adoptive, or stepfather does not live in the same household with his children” (5). They then raise the question: “How much money does father absence cost U.S. taxpayers?” (5). This is the subject of the rest of the report.

The first cost associated with father absence is “a loss of his income” (6). This effect is reflected in statistics that show only 8.8% of father-present families lived in poverty, while 39.3% of single-mother families lived in poverty (6 – citing U.S. Census Bureau, 2006, Current Population Reports, P60-231; and new01_000.htm.) These statistics can be misleading though, because some absent-fathers are poor themselves. They do cite “the best available studies” which claim between 20-40% of single-mothers “would leave poverty if they were married to the father of their children” (6 – Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan 2002 “For Richer or Poorer?: Marriage as Poverty Alleviation in the United States.” Population 57(3): 509-528; Adam Thomas and Isabel Sawhill, 2002, “For Richer or for Poorer: Marriage as an Antipoverty Strategy,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 21(4): 587-99.)

“Since single mothers are much more likely than married mothers to live in poverty, they rely on various government assistance programs much more than married parents, and use government means-tested benefit programs at a higher rate than two-parent families” (6). These programs include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, food stamps, school lunch, Head Start, and public housing. It is important to note that father absence is not necessarily the direct cause for single mothers in poverty. Other factors, such as education and available resources, also contribute.

In determining the costs of father absence to taxpayers, the authors calculated the total federal expenditures for a particular means-based program (based on the Federal Budget for 2006), then determined the fraction of participants who are in fatherless homes, and used this number to estimate the cost within each program for supporting father absent
families. For example, the total cost for TANF program was $17.14 billion in 2006. Of the participants, 87.5% were father-absent families. Therefore, the estimated 2006 TANF cost for supporting father absent families was $17.14 billion x .875 = $14.998 billion.

The most significant costs calculated were for TANF ($14.998 billion), the Earned Income Tax Credit ($14.828 billion), and Medicaid ($22.649 billion). These three programs accounted for approximately half of the $99.8 billion total.

The authors also separated the Programs into categories, including income support, nutrition, health, social services, and housing. The totals for each category were as follows: Income Support ($37.6 billion), Nutrition ($19.0 billion), Health ($24.2 billion), Social Services ($7.8 billion), and Housing ($11.4 billion). For a full list of the programs and associated costs, see page 10 of the report.

There is also a section that points to other long-term costs that cannot be tabulated as easily. The authors reference a cycle of poverty (so future generations will continue to rely on government programs), adult criminal activity and  incarceration, divorce and single parenthood, mental health problems, and children are less likely to be able to care for parents in old age. Each of these issues adds cost to the government and taxpayers, but in a less direct or calculable way.

In conclusion, the authors reiterate the staggering cost of supporting father absent families for the U.S. taxpayer, but also repeat their disclaimer that father absence is not necessarily the only or primary cause for this need for assistance. Nonetheless, they recommend more attention and research be devoted to uncovering the “reasons for the varying types of fatherless families”, in hopes fathers remain involved in children’s lives and that costs to taxpayers be decreased.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1. This report studied the financial costs of fatherlessness. Do you think this is the primary cost for families and our society, or might emotional costs be even greater?

2. Picture a friend of yours who lives without his/her father. What costs do you think matter the most to him/her? Explain.

3. Now, picture a single mother with children. How might her situation require more help than married mothers? Do
you think taxpayers should be helping families in this situation?

4. This study shows how U.S. taxpayers support single mother families. Can you think of any ways that single mother
families also support married families or single people? (For example, programs that only benefit those people)

5. If you were deciding how the government should spend money, what would you recommend? Did this study influence your thoughts or decisions?


1. Father absence is highly correlated with poverty in America, but it is unclear whether it is one of the primary reasons for poverty in America.

2. It is very difficult to calculate the costs of father absence, because emotional and long-term costs cannot be accounted for. This study shows the (2006) annual amount of federal expenditures to support father absent families in America.

3. There are lots of reasons to be concerned about father absence. The cost to taxpayers is one, but others include social, financial, and psychological disadvantages for children in this family situation.

4. More research is required to understand what should be done about fatherlessness in America.

Jay McCabe
© 2019 CYS

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