Fatherless Society

David Blankenhorn, Quadrant, 12/1/1997

In short, the key for men is to be fathers. The key for children is to have fathers. The key for society is to create fathers. For society, the primary results of fatherhood are right-doing males and better outcomes for children. Conversely, the primary consequences of fatherlessness are rising male violence and declining child well-being. In the United States at the close of the twentieth century, paternal disinvestment has become the major cause of declining child well-being and the underlying source of our most important social problems, especially those rooted in violence.

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Subjects: Family, Fatherhood

More by: David Blankenhorn

Fatherhood is a social role that obligates men to their biological offspring. For two reasons, it is society's most important role for men. First, fatherhood, more than any other male activity, helps men to become good men: more likely to obey the law, to be good citizens, and to think about the needs of others. Put more abstractly, fatherhood bends maleness - in particular, male aggression - toward prosocial purposes. Second, fatherhood privileges children. In this respect, fatherhood is a social invention designed to supplement maternal investment in children with paternal investment in children.

Paternal investment enriches children in four ways. First, it provides them with a father's physical protection. Second, it provides them with a father's money and other material resources. Third, and probably most important, it provides them with what might be termed paternal cultural transmission: a father's distinctive capacity to contribute to the identity, character and competence of his children. Fourth, and most obviously, paternal investment provides children with the day-to-day nurturing - feeding them, playing with them, telling them a story - that they want and need from both of their parents. In virtually all human societies, children's well-being depends decisively upon a relatively high level of paternal investment.

Indeed, many anthropologists view the rise of fatherhood as the key to the emergence of the human family and, ultimately, of human civilisation. As Jane and Chet Lancaster put it:

>In the course of evolution, the keystone in the foundation of the human family was the capturing of male energy into the nurturance of the young ... The human family is a complex organisational structure for the garnering of energy to be transformed into the production of the next generation, and its most essential feature is the collaboration of the male and female parent in the division of labor.

In short, the key for men is to be fathers. The key for children is to have fathers. The key for society is to create fathers. For society, the primary results of fatherhood are right-doing males and better outcomes for children. Conversely, the primary consequences of fatherlessness are rising male violence and declining child well-being. In the United States at the close of the twentieth century, paternal disinvestment has become the major cause of declining child well-being and the underlying source of our most important social problems, especially those rooted in violence.

Youth Violence

In There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz meticulously describes the world of Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, two boys living in a Chicago public housing project in the late 1980s. It is a world of relentless, pitiless violence. It is a world in which children witness far more murders than weddings - and in which welfare mothers commonly purchase funeral insurance for their small children. It is also a world largely without responsible adult males, a world in which Kotlowitz observes a twelve-year-old boy trying to be a man without knowing how, worrying about the safety of his younger siblings "like a father worrying about his children." So closely are these two themes intertwined - growing violence rooted in growing fatherlessness - that Kotlowitz might just as appropriately have named his study There Are No Fathers Here.

Yet our society remains curiously reluctant to name this problem. Much of our national discussion of youth and crime simply ignores the elephant in the room called fatherlessness. Moreover, many analysts come quite close to viewing all traditional norms of fatherhood not as a remedy for the problem of youth violence but rather as a leading cause of it.

Both clinical studies and anthropological investigations confirm the process through which boys seek to separate from their mothers in search of the meaning of their maleness. In this process, the father is irreplaceable. He enables the son to separate from the mother. He is the gatekeeper, guiding his son into the community of men, teaching him to name the meaning of his embodiment, showing him on good authority than he can be "man enough."

In this process, the boy becomes more than the son of his mother, or even the son of his parents. He becomes the son of his father. Later, when the boy becomes a man, he will reunite with the world of women, the world of his mother, through his spouse and children. In this sense, only by becoming his father's as well as his mother's son can he become a good father and husband.

When this process of male identity does not succeed - when the boy cannot separate from the mother, cannot become the son of his father - one main result, in clinical terms, is rage. Rage against the mother, against women, against society. It is a deeply misogynistic rage, vividly expressed, for example, in contemporary rap music with titles such as "Beat That Bitch with a Bat."

Another common result of this failure is hyper-masculinity, or what is frequently termed protest masculinity: the unrestricted (unmanhandled) aggression and swagger of boys who must prove their manhood all by themselves, without the help of fathers. For these reasons, if we want to learn the identity of the rapist, the hater of women, the occupant of jail cells, we do not look first to boys with traditionally masculine fathers. We look first to boys with no fathers.

Certainly, despite the difficulty of proving causation in the social sciences, the weight of evidence increasingly supports the conclusion that fatherlessness is a primary generator of violence among young men. In A General Theory of Crime, Michael R. Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi summarise current findings: "Such family measures as the percentage of the population divorced, the percentage of households headed by women, and the percentage of unattached individuals in the community are among the most powerful predictors of crime rates." Surveys of child well-being repeatedly show that children living apart from their fathers are far more likely than other children to be expelled or suspended from school, to display emotional and behavioural problems, to have difficulty getting along with their peers, and to get in trouble with the police.

According to a 1990 study commissioned by the Progressive Policy Institute, the "relationship between crime and one-parent families" is "so strong that controlling for family configuration erases the relationship between race and crime and between low income and crime. This conclusion shows up time and again in the literature."

Moreover, fatherlessness undermines more than the life prospects of individual fatherless children. Especially as it becomes widespread, it also weakens the larger ethos of protection in a community. As James Q. Wilson reminds us:

>Neighborhood standards may be set by mothers but they are enforced by fathers, or at least by adult males. Neighborhoods without fathers are neighborhoods without men able and willing to confront errant youth, chase threatening gangs, and reproach delinquent fathers ... the absence of fathers ... deprives the community of those little platoons that informally but often effectively control boys on the street.

The rapid growth of crime in our society over the past three decades does not derive from traditional male norms but from the decline of certain traditional male norms, particularly the norm of paternal obligation and the duty to provide for children.

Domestic Violence Against Women

Domestic violence emerged as an urgent and distinctive societal concern during the 1970s. During these years, scholars and opinion leaders, especially those within the feminist movement, came to view domestic violence not simply as one subcategory of violent behaviour but as conceptually separate from other types of violence - a special crime with its own distinctive logic and institutional sources.

The logic of the crime, in this view, is the logic of patriarchy. Privileged by gender status, men in families oppress women and children, frequently through violence. The main institutional source of the problem is marriage, which sanctions the values of patriarchal fatherhood. This perspective suggests that our current understanding of domestic violence is defined largely by our understanding of marriage and fatherhood.

Our public discussion of domestic violence almost never acknowledges, much less analyses, differences in marital status among men who assault women. Indeed, to avoid making these distinctions, certain rules of language are widely observed. Almost without exception, journalists, legislators, academics and advocates for battered women adhere to the convention of calling perpetrators of domestic violence "husbands" or "partners," or sometimes, even more elliptically, "husbands and boyfriends." As a result, the public repeatedly hears that men who batter women are either husbands or, well, we would prefer not to be precise.

Thus our currently prevailing paradigm for understanding the problem: male violence in families is rooted in, and sustained by, male marital privilege. Because of the causal link between marriage and violence, and because husbands are the principal victimisers of women, "wife beating" properly emerges as a generic term for male violence against a female sexual partner.

But if marriage is the problem - if marriage serves to institutionalise and even valorise male violence - we might logically expect the decline of marriage in our society to be accompanied by a decline in domestic violence. More women freed from the restraints of marriage, less male violence.

But apparently, the opposite has happened. As women are living ever more separately, they are also living ever more dangerously. Demographers confirm that the single most significant change in men's lives during the past three decades has been that "men on average spend more time outside of fatherhood" - much less time living with their children and much more time living outside marriage.

At the same time, while reliable trend-line data are virtually nonexistent, the leading scholars on this issue generally confirm that domestic violence is a growing problem. So the weakening of marriage has not made the home a safer place for women. As more women are living apart from husbands and fathers, more women are being battered by men.

The National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the US Department of Justice, provides the most comprehensive source of national data on violent crimes against women. This survey's findings confirm the thesis that violent behaviour among men is strongly linked to marital status. For example, from 1979 through 1987, about 57,000 women per year were violently assaulted by their husbands. But 200,000 women per year were assaulted by boyfriends and 216,000 by ex-husbands. Of all violent crimes against women committed by intimates during this period, about 65 per cent were committed by either boyfriends or ex-husbands, compared with 9 per cent by husbands. Clearly, male violence against female intimates is concentrated not within the marital institution but outside the perimeters of it - either from sort-of spouses (boyfriends) or from former husbands.

More broadly, married women are four times less likely than unmarried or divorced women to become the victim of any violent crime. Marital status is one of the strongest predictors for female crime victimisation. From 1973 through 1992, the female violent crime victimisation rate - violent crimes against females per 1000 females aged twelve or older - was forty-three for unmarried women and forty-five for divorced and separated women. For married women, the rate was eleven. In short, for women, being married means being safer from violent crime.

Yet simply comparing married to unmarried perpetrators, as revealing as that comparison is, may not take us to the heart of the matter. Recall the core idea: the institutional inhibitor of male violence is married fatherhood. The goal for men, and for society, is paternal investment through an alliance with the mother. But what happens to men when this process fragments? Specifically, what happens when there is fatherhood - or at least some semblance of fatherhood - but little or no alliance with the mother?

During the summer of 1993, several colleagues and I conducted an unscientific experiment. We read two Boston newspapers each day, looking for stories describing local incidents of domestic violence. We had our hands full. As it turned out, that summer Boston experienced a horrifying surge of domestic violence. In reviewing these grim stories, two types of violent men clearly stand out.

The first is the boyfriend-father. He is the biological father of his girlfriend's child, but his relationship with the mother is sporadic, ambivalent and unstable. On the one hand, he is proud of his child and cares about his child. As a father, he has the right to make claims and to be involved. On the other hand, his commitment to the mother is weak and variable. Moreover, because the mother understands this fact, she may well decide that she no longer wants him around.

For these reasons, he may well treat her with resentment and even rage, in part because he dislikes being obligated to her, and in part because she alone largely controls something that is important to him. In addition, his anger may be stoked by humiliation as he comes to suspect - and to be told by the mother; perhaps as she shows him the door - that he is letting her and their child down and thus failing a test of manhood.

This increasingly common situation is highly combustible - an unstable mixture of sexual proprietariness, concern for offspring, resentment and relative powerlessness, all operating without the benefit of any institutional coherence or structure. It is a seedbed for male violence. As a result, the boyfriend-father frequently becomes a violent man, using his fists or a weapon to grab for something - ultimately, perhaps, a sense of control and self-respect - that his situation renders almost inherently unattainable.

The second newly prevalent type of perpetrator is distinctly visible from the National Crime Victimization Survey. He is the ex-spouse: the former husband-father who goes crazy. He was once a married father. Then his world falls apart. He loses his children. He loses his home, his purpose, his direction. Frequently, he loses his grip. Frequently, he becomes a violent man.

Sometimes, of course, he was a bad husband and father - perhaps even a violent one - before the divorce. In such cases, marriage has clearly failed to inhibit male violence. Yet even after taking this disconfirming evidence into account, the larger trend seems clear: for many men, suddenly losing their identity as married fathers, especially when the loss is involuntary, shatters their world and triggers violence.

As marriage weakens, more and more men become isolated and estranged from their children and from the mothers of their children. One result, in turn, is the spread of male violence.

Across societies, married fatherhood is the single most reliable, and relied upon, prescription for socialising males. Thus, a society's procreative norms for men, though seldom recognised as a determinant of violence, do more to determine the level of domestic violence than either legislative action or police procedures.

For if the cultural antidote for male violence is monogamous marriage and responsible fatherhood, the breeding grounds for it are casual sex, family fragmentation, and non-marital childbearing. As we deinstitutionalise marriage and fracture fatherhood in our society, we must not be surprised by the rapid spread of male violence, especially violence against women.

Child Sexual Abuse

With each passing year, the horrifying crime of child sexual abuse is reported more often and, apparently, is happening more often in our society. It is also, more than any other category of violent male behaviour, rooted in what Douglas J. Besharov, a leading scholar in the field, calls "the growing presence of unrelated males in households with children." In short, the spreading risk of childhood sexual abuse is directly linked to the decline of married fatherhood.

As in the case of domestic violence against women, the crime of child sexual abuse is frequently described by scholars and children's advocates as a sickening but predictable consequence of having fathers in the home. From this perspective, child sexual abuse can be viewed as fatherhood run amok. As Judith Lewis Herman puts it, the sexual molestation of daughters is "an exaggeration of patriarchal family norms, but not a departure from them." The presence of fathers, then - especially, it seems, everyday kind of fathers from model families - endangers children by exposing them to the risk of sexual abuse.

Yes, some - too many - married fathers molest their children. But the weight of evidence is clear. What magnifies the risk of sexual abuse for children is not the presence of a married father but his absence. More specifically, the escalating risk of childhood sexual abuse in our society stems primarily from the growing absence of married fathers and the growing presence of stepfathers, boyfriends, and other unrelated or transient males.

Consider stepfathers. A stepfather enters a family as the mother's sexual partner, but not as the daughter's father and long-time protector. As many analysts have pointed out, the incest taboo is significantly weaker in stepfather-stepdaughter relationships. Nor is this relationship characterised by what some scholars term "kin altruism" - the profound tendency to sacrifice most for those with whom we share the closest biological ties. For fathers (and for mothers as well), kin altruism exerts its most powerful influence in the case of biological offspring.

Moreover, for the married father, the daily habits of fathering, originating from the child's birth - watching her being born, teaching her to brush her teeth - serve as a strong reinforcement of paternal protectiveness and a strong barrier against the expression of sexual desire for a child. As Judith Wallerstein observes: "the father's role is to protect his daughter, an impulse that is normally more powerful than any excitement he experiences."

In the case of stepfathers, none of these inhibitors of sexual expression is present. Of course, most stepfathers do not molest their stepchildren. But, as numerous studies confirm, stepfathers are far more likely than fathers to do so.

Consider boyfriends. Until quite recently, mothers with live-in boyfriends were considered unfit mothers, largely because boyfriends were considered a threat to the sexual innocence of children. Judges could and did deny such women custody of their children. But today, with the general acceptance of cohabitation, not only has such anti-boyfriend fearfulness largely vanished but we seem to have forgotten why we ever had it. In general, mothers with dependent children are free to share their households with boyfriends.

The language we use is revealing. These are not men but "boys." They are not husbands or fathers but "friends." When we think of adult family roles, there are no activities called the "boyfriend role." The language is rooted in fact. Boyfriends tend to be younger and far more transient than either fathers or stepfathers. Regardless of their age, they possess a kind of adolescent freedom. They are unrestricted, not bound by either the father role or the husband role. Most important, they are not bound by probably the most powerful taboo in human society: the incest taboo.

Consequently, the growing prevalence of boyfriends and "play husbands" in households with children poses a direct threat to children's physical and sexual safety. One study conducted by the research firm Westat finds that, of all cases of child abuse in which the perpetrator is known, fully one-quarter are cohabiting "parent substitutes," usually boyfriends - a rate dramatically higher than the rates found among fathers, day-care providers, babysitters, or other caregivers.

According to another recent study from the University of Iowa, of all reported cases of non-parental child abuse, about half are committed by boyfriends, even though boyfriends provide only about 2 per cent of all non-parental child care. About 84 per cent of all cases of non-parental child abuse occur in single-parent homes. Among the cases occurring in single-parent homes, 64 per cent of the perpetrators are boyfriends. The study's conclusion: "a young child left alone with the mother's boyfriend experiences substantially elevated risk of abuse".

Regarding sexual abuse, the risk posed by boyfriends is especially high. In the Westat study, cases of sexual abuse by "parent substitutes" actually outnumber cases by natural parents. Michael Gordon and Susan J. Creighton summarise the research findings: "A number of studies have shown that girls living with non-natal fathers [boyfriends and stepfathers] are at higher risk for sexual abuse than girls living with natal fathers."

To make a dangerous situation even worse, many single mothers, especially women who never married and already face obstacles such as poverty and bad neighbourhoods, simply do not prevent their boyfriends from showing sexual interest in their daughters. Because she wants a boyfriend who will fuss over her and her children, a single mother "may encourage the current man in her life to 'play daddy,' hoping he will like the role," reports Judith S. Musick in Young, Poor and Pregnant. But these mothers often fail to realise that "allowing someone to play daddy under these conditions in effect gives him carte blanche - the child is his to do with as he sees fit. All too many males will see fit to threaten, force, coerce or seduce the woman's daughters into sexual activity."

Finally, consider the rising risk of sexual abuse from male strangers and acquaintances. In the Westat study, approximately half of the confirmed acts of child sexual abuse were committed by "others" - people outside the household. More significantly, there is a clear relationship between the absence of a married father on the premises and the opportunity for "others" to coerce and molest children. Accordingly, many girls in father-absent homes are poorly protected from sexually opportunistic males in the surrounding community.

Child sexual abuse is a terrible crime, regardless of the identity or family status of the perpetrator Too many married fathers commit this crime. These are facts. But it is also a fact, despite our widespread unwillingness to face it, that a child is sexually safer with her father than she is with any other man, from a stepfather to her mother's boyfriend to guys in the neighbourhood. She is also safer with a father than without one. A child in a fatherless home faces a significantly higher risk of sexual abuse.

Child Poverty and Economic Insecurity

If the most mediately frightening societal consequence of fatherlessness is the rise of male violence, the most easily measurable is the rise of child poverty. Across history and cultures, the foundational tasks of fatherhood have been twofold: protection and provision. The first is about violence. The second is about money. For the child, fatherlessness means more of the former and less of the latter.

A blizzard of statistics and studies confirms the relationship between fatherlessness and child poverty, but here, at least arguably, are the three most revealing comparisons. In married-couple homes in the United States in 1992, about 13 per cent of all children under the age of six lived in poverty; in single-mother families, about 66 per cent of young children lived in poverty - a ratio of 5 to 1. In married-couple homes with pre-school children, median family income in 1992 was approximately $41,000; in single-mother homes with young children, median income was about $9000 - a ratio of more than 4 to 1. Of all married-couple families in the nation in 1992, about 6 per cent lived in poverty; of all female-headed families, about 35 per cent lived in poverty - a ratio of almost 6 to 1.

One more comparison, regarding the economic wellbeing of African-American children. Of all black married couples with children under eighteen in 1992, about 15 per cent lived in poverty; of all black mother-headed homes with children, about 57 per cent lived in poverty - a ratio of almost 4 to 1.

In Single Mothers and Their Children, Irwin Garfinkel and Sara S. McLanahan succinctly summarise the evidence: "Families headed by single women with children are the poorest of all major demographic groups regardless of how poverty is measured." In Poor Support, David T. Ellwood similarly concludes that "the vast majority of children who are raised entirely in a two-parent home will never be poor during childhood. By contrast, the vast majority of children who spend time in a single-parent home will experience poverty."

Most scholars now agree that this link between family structure and child poverty is not simply a statistical correlation. It is a causal relationship. Fatherlessness causes child poverty. Indeed, according to numerous scholars, fatherlessness has become the single most powerful determinant of child poverty - more important than race, region, or the educational attainment of the mother. As William Julius Wilson and Kathryn M. Neckerman put it, "sex and marital status of the head are the most important determinants of poverty status for families."

Similarly, Leif Jensen, David J. Eggebeen and Daniel T. Lichter, analysing a national child poverty rate that jumped from 14 per cent in 1969 to 20.6 per cent in 1990, despite much more social spending on children, attribute most of this surge to "the demographic shift of children living in married-couple families to 'high risk' single-parent families." Echoing other scholars, they suggest that "changing family structure is the greatest long-term threat to US children."

In his careful review of the evidence, William A. Galston, currently the deputy assistant to the President for domestic public policy, concludes that current research findings "suggest that the best anti-poverty program for children is a stable, intact family." He might just as easily have said: a married father on the premises.

In 1986, our society crossed an important threshold. That year, for the first time in our nation's history, a majority of all poor families were father-absent. Historically, for most poor children, poverty stemmed primarily from fathers being unemployed or receiving low wages. For most poor children today, poverty stems primarily from not having a father in the home.

In strict economic terms, this trend can be understood as paternal disinvestment: the growing refusal of fathers to spend their resources on their offspring. This trend helps to explain an apparent paradox. Public spending on children in the United States has never been higher. At the same time, child poverty is spreading and child well-being is declining. The explanation is that our rising public investment in children has been far outweighed by our private disinvestment, primarily paternal disinvestment.

Certainly, the clearest economic consequence of paternal disinvestment is rising child poverty, a condition that, in 1992, afflicted 22 per cent of all children under eighteen and 25 per cent of all children under six. But paternal disinvestment also produces an economic ripple effect that extends well beyond the official definition of poverty. For even when fatherlessness does not consign children to poverty, it commonly consigns them to a childhood - and frequently an early adulthood as well - marked by persistent economic insecurity.

For example, divorce typically means lower living standards for women and children. One study estimates that, in the year following divorce, average income for women drops by approximately 30 per cent. Even the best post-divorce economic arrangements, in which fathers regularly pay child support, almost always mean less money and more insecurity for children - including fewer traditional childhood activities such as athletics, summer camp, vacations, school trips and swimming lessons. A 1991 study concludes: "other than paying child support and buying gifts, the majority of [divorced] fathers have never provided assistance to their children."

Moreover, millions of children in our society - from those who have never seen their fathers to those whose absent fathers visit regularly and pay child support - fail to receive any financial support from their fathers precisely when they need it the most: when they are crossing the threshold of adulthood. As they enter their late teens and early twenties, these young people will want to buy a car. They will want to go to college, or make a down payment on a house, or buy furniture for an apartment, or find a co-signer for a bank loan. But, unlike previous generations, these young people will get no help from their fathers. Even among divorced fathers who pay child support, the end of the support order, usually when the child reaches eighteen, usually signals the end of support. In her study of paternal support following divorce, Wallerstein was dismayed to find that many fathers

>who had maintained contact with their children over the decade, who had supported them with regularity, and who were well able to continue supporting them financially, failed to do so at the time when their youngsters, economic and educational preparation for adulthood was at stake.

For many young people, this paternal disinvestment in young adulthood contributes to downward social mobility. Although many children manage to do well without a father's help, those who grow up without fathers are far more likely to move down, not up, the socioeconomic ladder. Sons are especially affected, since they are the traditional beneficiaries of a father's occupational guidance and role modelling.

In a larger sense, the cessation of the intergenerational transfer of paternal wealth - from father to child and from paternal grandparents to grandchild - is likely to emerge by the early years of the next century not only as a growing determinant of individual economic wellbeing but also as a new source of social inequality. For as fatherlessness spreads, the economic difference between America's haves and have-nots will increasingly revolve around a basic question: Which of us had fathers?

From a societal perspective, this particular consequence of fatherlessness is very much like most others. It is not remediable. Paternal disinvestment cannot be offset by either maternal investment or public investment. As a society, we will not solve our crisis of fatherlessness with prison cells, mentoring programs, anti-violence curricula, boyfriends, anti-stalking laws, children's advocates, income transfers, self-esteem initiatives, or even mothers. We will solve it only with fathers.

This article originally appeared here.


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