Acton Commentary

Transforming the Culture of Fatherlessness


With President Bush and members of Congress focusing on the debate over whether faith-based charities can receive public funding, it is important not to lose sight of the causes of poverty. Increasingly apparent of late is how the absence of fathers from families, combined with changed attitudes about fatherhood, have contributed to the cultural atmosphere in which the welfare state "remedy" is advanced. What Pope John Paul II wrote nearly 20 years ago in Familiaris Consortio has become ever more timely: "efforts must be made to restore socially the conviction that the place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance." (#25)

The contrary notion—that the father is replaceable—has, in recent decades, gained currency among elites of the West. David Blankenhorn showed in his influential book, Fatherless America , that we no longer have a "cultural script" for fatherhood. Imperiled is the idea of the father as a necessary male parent who gives of himself for others in distinctive ways. We have moved toward a new view of men and women as interchangeable wage-earners and caregivers, chiefly interested not in their children’s welfare but in their own "self-fulfillment." The practical result of this new view has not been that men and women have been rendered co-equal parents but, rather, that men as fathers have been rendered superfluous.

When a society loses its cultural script for fathers, it marginalizes them and, in doing so, undermines its ability to socialize men. Nature teaches—and history confirms—that unsocialized men easily turn unsociable, even antisocial. Responsible fatherhood is, to paraphrase Lord Acton, a delicate fruit of civilization. A delicate fruit must be handled with care, lest it spoil. We must realize that responsible fatherhood is in danger of being displaced, to the detriment of family and society, both now and into the future.

In a culture that conveys messages to men that they are not needed in distinctive roles of father and husband, many men leave their families or refuse to form families when they beget children. Gone are most vestiges of traditional stigmas once associated with divorce and out-of-wedlock births. We have forfeited much of the traditional wisdom that relates child welfare to intact two-parent families.

Fortunately, that traditional wisdom is now being supported by impressive social-scientific research. In the United States, statistics that reveal the declining well-being of children chiefly point to two related causal factors: (1) the dramatic increase in the proportion of children growing up in fatherless households, and (2) the rise of the modern welfare state.

According to a Harvard University study, the number of children in the U.S. living without fathers rose from nine million in 1960 to 24 million today. Estimates from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicate that as many as 60 percent of U.S. children currently live without their biological father. This fatherlessness has devastating consequences for children. Nearly 75 percent of children in single-parent households will suffer poverty before age 11, compared with 20 percent of children from intact families, according to the Journal of Marriage and Family. The percentage of U.S. children growing up in poor families is higher today than when President Johnson declared a "war on poverty" in 1966. Data show compellingly how children who grow up without fathers are more likely to fail in school or drop out, develop behavioral or emotional problems requiring treatment, abuse drugs and alcohol, and become sexually active. Further, the absence of fathers has been shown greatly to increase violence perpetrated by the young, including rape, murder, and suicide. Fatherless children are also more frequently the victims of child abuse and neglect.

There are many reasons for an increase in fatherlessness in the U.S. and the West. The revolutions in sexual mores in the 1960s, coupled with extreme forms of feminism, tended toward the separation of childbearing from marriage. The entertainment industry has gone from portraying fathers overwhelmingly as wise heads of households to showing them as buffoons or non-entities. Yet the influence of these factors on fatherlessness pales compared with the influence of the welfare state.

Among communities dominated by the welfare system, fatherlessness is rampant. Today, fully 90 percent of U.S. families receiving cash welfare from government are without a father in the home.

The very sociology of public welfare entails disincentives to intact families. Welfare programs address primarily or exclusively the material needs of people, most often of women and their children. When women and children are provided for by the state, a traditional and natural role for a father is usurped, undermining a man’s sense of place in the family. Women, too, may judge the state to be of a more reliable supporter than a husband and opt out of marriage altogether. Both of these possibilities are indeed actualized under a regime of public welfare. In addition, welfare policies undermine two-parent families and encourage out-of-wedlock births in a host of other ways. To take but two examples: per-child benefit adjustments alter the mix of variables affecting an unmarried woman’s decision to conceive additional children, and low-income men are given incentives to leave their families when benefits packages favor single-parent households.

Fatherlessness, whether brought on by failure to marry or by divorce, is socially, spiritually, and economically damaging among all socioeconomic groups. We now know from studies that unmarried men earn less money than do their married counterparts. This makes sense intuitively as well: marriage both reflects and fosters responsibility, devotion, hard work, and other attributes attractive to employers. Such attributes, passed on from fathers to children, also nurture success in school and in social relationships, and strengthen children’s future career prospects. Research confirms that what is needed to achieve these desired social effects is married men who live with their children permanently.

The above observations warrant additional consideration. The institutions of marriage and family promote responsibility among men, who in turn instill values of responsibility in their children. The institutions of marriage and family are then schools of virtue, the most basic of what Edmund Burke called the "little platoons" of civil society. Fathers are essential to these platoons, and not simply to provide bread for the table. Fathers are key to transmitting values and skills to the next generation, especially to the next generation of men who will themselves be fathers. These skills and values, necessary for perpetuating civilization, are connected also with economic productivity and abundance. The role of the father reveals in a special way how, as John Paul has written, "besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself" (Centesimus Annus, #32). Resources must be stewarded, and in the case of human resources, they must be developed as well. First and foremost, this development takes place in the family.

It is incumbent upon countries of the West experiencing crises of fatherhood to rethink their attachment to the welfare state. Concretely, countries must reform existing programs not only to eliminate disincentives to intact families, but also positively to promote intact families. Although imperative, this will not be easy; public welfare by its nature inhibits genuine concern for its clients.

Yet more important than the political realm in promoting intact families is the cultural realm. In the U.S. today an ecumenical Christian movement fills sports stadiums with men who pledge to devote their lives more fully to God and family. In cities, community-based organizations under the auspices of churches teach fathering skills to yet-unmarried fathers. Conferences on fatherhood that a few years ago attracted handfuls of participants now draw hundreds, including lawmakers and religious leaders. There are many other encouraging signs.

Pope Pius XII wrote, "If the mother is the heart, the father is the head of the family, and consequently its health and efficiency depend on the vigor, the virtues and activity of the father." Even though—and perhaps because—a nadir of carelessness about fatherhood has been reached in the West today, this profound truth is becoming all the more apparent.

To pray and work diligently that fatherhood may be advanced again in our societies is a worthy endeavor in order to ensure the moral, spiritual and economic well-being of our culture.