The Fatherhood Crisis: Time for a New Look?

Policy Reports | Social

No. 267
Wednesday, June 30, 2004
by Stephen Baskerville

Introduction: Fatherhood in America

1Fatherhood is rapidly becoming the number one social policy issue in America. In 1995, President Bill Clinton stated, "The single biggest social problem in our society may be the growing absence of fathers from their children's homes, because it contributes to so many other social problems." In 1997, Congress created a task force to promote fatherhood, and governors' and mayors' conferences followed in 1998. In 2002, President George W. Bush unveiled a $320 million package of initiatives to promote "responsible fatherhood." Nonprofit organizations such as the National Fatherhood Initiative were formed in the mid-1990s to combat the problem of father absence.

"The share of children under 18 living in fatherless families has risen continuously since 1970."

In addition to the growing physical absence of fathers from their children's homes, President Clinton and others charged that "deadbeat dads" were abandoning their court-ordered child support obligations. The lack of financial support from their fathers was said to leave more children in poverty and more mothers dependent on public welfare. Nonsupportive fathers were said to also be otherwise uninvolved in their children's lives, encouraging social pathologies associated with child abandonment. New laws were passed to garnish noncustodial parents' wages and tax refunds, and penalties for nonpayment were stiffened. Federal and state spending on child support collection increased dramatically.  And the private sector was enlisted in a growing web of child support enforcement efforts.

Fatherless families are a growing problem, but the principal cause is not bad behavior or the fault of fathers; it is government policies with respect to divorce and child support. In the early 1970s, "no fault" divorce laws replaced the historical fault-based system with unilateral divorce - in which one partner can end a marriage without penalty and without the consent of the other party. Unilateral divorce thus favors the partner who wants to end a marriage over the one who wants to maintain an intact family.2 In the decades since, state laws regarding child custody, visitation rights, child support and enforcement have undergone a revolution. A divorce decree is only the beginning of the government's involvement in a family's life; until the children reach the age of majority, their lives may be regulated by the growing apparatus of child support enforcement, quasi-judicial family courts and social welfare agencies.

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