Politics & Policy

Happy Fatherless Day

As marriage declines, fewer fathers will have real relationships with their children.

Today, marriage is less likely to ground and guide American family life. The recent response from the left to the nation’s retreat from marriage is instructive.

Just “live with it,” says sociologist Philip Cohen in The Atlantic. Ezra Klein assures us in the Washington Post that as marriage breaks down, “space will emerge for a more practical conversation about how to best support America’s increasingly nontraditional family units.”  And Matthew Yglesias notes in Slate that the Left sees an “expansive welfare state” as the primary vehicle for supporting unmarried women and their children.

#ad#It’s debatable whether the nation has the money, the ability, or the political will to launch new government programs and initiatives dedicated to “supporting America’s increasingly nontraditional family units.” I certainly have my doubts. But at least the Left is honest enough to recognize that less marriage means more government.

However, most proponents of the “live with it” approach conveniently ignore, or are in complete denial about, the most fundamental consequence of the American retreat from marriage: growing rates of fatherless families. In our public conversation about how best to accommodate today’s family diversity, what usually goes unsaid is that fewer marriages also means fewer fathers in our nation’s homes.

That is because marriage is the institution that binds men to their children. There is no substitute. Cohabiting couples with children are much more likely to end up on the rocks than their married peers (even in Sweden). Divorced and never-married fathers often have difficulty getting or making the time to stay in regular contact with their children once the relationship with the mother of their child is over. By contrast, fathers who are married to the mother of their children are much more likely to enjoy the day-in-day-out relationships with their children that enable them to give their kids the attention, discipline, and affection they need to thrive.

The statistics tell much of the story. As the share of middle-aged women (aged 30–50) who are married has fallen from 82 percent in 1970 to 62 percent today, the share of children living in fatherless homes has doubled, from 14 to 28 percent. Less marriage, more fatherless homes.

If you wish to see some of the stories behind these trends evocatively and tragically articulated, read Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson’s powerful new book, Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City. Despite their best intentions, poor, unmarried fathers in urban America usually fail in their quest to have good, consistent relationships with their children. That’s in large part because, without marriage (and the economic, legal, and cultural supports that stand behind a strong marriage culture), these men cannot maintain a good relationship with the mothers of their children, mothers who still, even today, serve as the primary caretakers and gatekeepers to their children.

So, let’s be clear here. As progressive proponents of the “live with it” approach to the retreat from marriage make their case, we need to remember one fundamental truth: Making peace with the nation’s retreat from marriage also means making our peace with an increasingly fatherless America.

W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, is the author of Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives. You can follow him on Twitter @WilcoxNMP.

W. Bradford Wilcox is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Isabel Sawhill is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and a former co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings.

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