Politics & Policy

Dad in the City

The importance of urban fatherhood.

W. Bradford Wilcox is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at University of Virginia. He is most recently the author of a study on fatherhood, Religion, Race, and Relationships in Urban America,” for the Center of Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values. He took questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: How important are fathers in the inner city?

W. Bradford Wilcox: Fathers are important everywhere — in our nation’s cities, suburbs, towns, and rural communities. Studies suggest that fathers play a particularly important role in five domains of children’s lives: providing financially for their children, protecting their children from abuse and neglect, teaching their children how to regulate their bodies and emotions through play (including “roughhousing”), disciplining their children (especially their boys), and modeling good male-female relationships to their sons and daughters. In urban America, the social science indicates that children who grow up in intact, married families are significantly more likely to succeed in schools, to avoid teenage pregnancy, and to stear clear of the law.

So, children who grow up in father-present homes are much more likely be virtuous citizens and to play an important role in creating good communities. By contrast, children who grow up apart from their fathers are much likely to suffer from a range of social, economic, and emotional ills. At the collective level, communities dominated by fatherless families also suffer. For instance, Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson found that “[f]amily structure is one of the strongest [predictors of]… urban violence across cities in the United States.” So married dads play a central and often unrecognized role in fostering safe and prosperous communities.

Lopez: Do churches help men be good fathers and husbands?

Wilcox: In a word, yes. In my book, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands, I find that churchgoing dads spend more time with their children, praise and hug their children more often, spend more time socializing with their wives, and are more emotionally engaged with their wives. So my earlier work indicates that religion domesticates men, turning their hearts and minds to the welfare of their wife and children.

But this earlier work is focused largely on white, middle-class families. In the last two years, I have turned my attention to the impact of religion on African American and Latino families. I have done so in large part because black and Latino families have been hit particularly hard by our nation’s recent retreat from marriage — evidenced in high rates of divorce, cohabitation, and single parenthood. Thus, I hope to find out how religion is or is not helping to strengthen marriage and family life in minority communities.

What I have found so far is that religious attendance does promote higher rates of marriage among blacks and Latinos. I have also found that religion fosters better relationships among married and unmarried black and Latino couples in America. Most interestingly, men’s attendance is more predictive of marriage and relationship quality than is women’s attendance. So across racial and ethnic lines, religion matters in making men better husbands and fathers.

Lopez: Do churches do enough to support marriage in the inner city?

Wilcox: Urban churches help marriages and family life primarily by cultivating what sociologist Elijah Anderson has called a “code of decency.” This code of decency encompasses hard work, sobriety, respect for self and others, law-abiding behavior, etc. And it is particularly important for urban men, who often fall prey to a competing “code of the street” that encompasses alcohol and drug abuse, violence, illegality, and so on. So when urban men stay in church or experience a religious conversion, they are much more likely to abide by this code of decency and to become decent husbands, fathers, and partners.

But urban churches could do a lot more to address sex and marriage head on. One reason they do not do enough of this is that a lot of nontraditional families can be found in the pews on any given Sunday. So these are sensitive topics. But I would also say that most suburban and rural churches also don’t do enough to address these topics head on. Churches across the religious spectrum, and in all parts of America, need to do much more to address sex, courtship, marriage, and divorce. Of course, they need to do this in creative, positive, and pastorally sensitive ways. Stigma in this area would be counter-productive.

Lopez: Should we be doing more to help churches strengthen urban American marriages?

Wilcox: Scholars and religious leaders need to figure out how to improve family ministries across religious and regional lines. We also need to figure out how to improve men’s ministries and make men more interested in their faith. Without better efforts to interest men, religious efforts to strengthen the family will be hamstrung.

Policymakers need to do a lot more to make marriage pay in low-income communities. They could start by addressing the marriage penalty facing low-income couples. In most states, low-income couples face a 10-30 percent hit in their real income/benefits if they get married. For instance, most unmarried low-income single mothers lose Medicaid if they marry a man working full-time in a low-wage job. So the government can and should do a lot more to reinforce the economic basis of marriage in low-income communities.

Lopez: Do inner-city women understand the importance of dads?

Wilcox: My interviews with inner-city women and mothers suggest that many of them do not think that fathers play a central role in the rearing of children. They think that single mothers can do just as good a job, on average, as married couples. Of course, this notion is also common among many well-educated professional women.

What these women don’t know is that the best and latest social science indicates that children are most likely to thrive in intact, married families headed by mothers and fathers. So one of the great challenges of our day is communicating the latest family social science to average Americans so that they can do better by their children, or the children that they will one day bear or sire. In a word, our society needs to rediscover that fathers are not fungible.

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