The diminished state of fatherhood in 2017
As Father’s Day passes again this year, I think it useful to reflect on the economics of fatherhood and how it has changed over my lifetime. This is a difficult issue to write about because it is fraught with nearly all the minefields of political correctness; race, gender, government aid and the enduring success of traditional family arrangements. Truthfully, this should be the most discussed topic in American culture. Here’s why.
From as far back as researchers have good data, until about 1960, the share of single-parent households have been fairly stable in the western world. Plagues and wars sometimes led to transient spikes in single- parent households, but family formation tended to return quickly to the traditional two-parent household. The 1950s offer a good contemporary snapshot of normalcy. Births among unwed mothers were low, not exceeding 5 percent of any population, and lower among African-American and Asian families. More than nine in 10 families had both father and mother in the household.
From the early ’60s, when I was born, this began to change, with single-parent households growing in number and as a share of all families. It was slow at first, but then accelerated quickly through the 1970s and 1980s, rising to 30 percent of all households by 1990. The impact was felt unevenly across demographic groups. Young families were, understandably, most heavily impacted; by 1990 more than 60 percent of African-American families had no father present. Importantly, the share of father-only families remained about constant at 3 to 4 percent. The change over the past 50 years has been almost wholly about the growing absence of fathers.
Today, across all American demographic groups, about 40 percent of children are born to unmarried women, and the share of single-parent households remains constant at about 40 percent. There is no clearly unambiguous avenues of causation to this dissolution of traditional family structure. This column isn’t about what caused the changes; I’ll save that for later. Suffice it to say, we can all agree that the ability of women to escape unhappy or abusive marriages is a good thing, and that many divorced or unmarried families do very well raising children. That does not erase the difficulties fatherless homes inflict upon our economy and society.
One aspect of this is the broad community effects. Here, example helps. My grandmother was widowed in the midst of the Great Depression with four boys under 14. Her ability to raise four successful men on a subsistence farm in Rome, Ind., depended in part on the vast support network that surrounded her. There was an abundance of men around to help steer my rascally father and uncles into adulthood. The fatherless boys of the 1930s and 1940s had a network of intact families upon which to draw. There is much less of that today.
The reason that the single-parent family is now a problem is that it is concentrated by educational level and neighborhood. Ironically, this dynamic is a fundamental aspect of a recent book by sociologist Charles Murray. Focusing solely on white Americans in order to defuse the baseless charges of racism that plagued his earlier work, Murray explains how single-family households are concentrated among neighborhoods with lower education (and hence incomes). The flip side is that among the college-educated, family formation was eerily similar to 1960.
One result is that the many strong fatherly figures who provided example and guidance to my father are conspicuously absent in the very neighborhoods where they are most needed.
The problem is worse than that as research by David Autor of MIT points to the disproportionate effects of disadvantaged and single-parent households on the academic and social development of boys.
It is easy to see how a cycle of fatherless homes damages boys, whose own journey into manhood does not include the role of father and husband in a secure and nurturing household.
That isn’t welcome news on Father’s Day. <br>
<i> Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. </i>