The Fatherhood Crisis: Time for a New Look?

Policy Reports | Social

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

The Myth of the "Deadbeat Dad"

15The conventional wisdom - enunciated by political leaders, media commentators, and scholars on both the left and the right - assumes that the problem of fatherlessness stems from paternal abandonment.

Conventional Wisdom. David Blankenhorn writes, "The principal cause of fatherlessness is paternal choice...the rising rate of paternal abandonment."16 The little work that has been done by political scientists perpetuates this assumption. "Husbands abandon wives and children with no looking back," writes Cynthia Daniels.17 "Millions of men walk out on their children," says Robert Griswold.18

"There is no evidence that fathers are voluntarily abandoning their children en masse."

Conservatives, who have done the most to call attention to fatherlessness, also accept this explanation. Rutgers University anthropologist Lionel Tiger writes that the abandonment of women by men is responsible for "...much of the 50 percent divorce rate..." and may help "...explain the single-mother rate of over 30 percent of births across the industrial world."19 Social philosopher Leon Kass blames feminism for liberating men from their responsibilities.20

"Children should not have to suffer twice for the decisions of their parents to divorce," U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) stated in June 1998, "once when they decide to divorce, and again when one of the parents evades the financial responsibility to care for them."21

Evidence on Divorced Fathers. All this may seem intuitively correct, but is it true? In fact, no government or academic study has ever shown large numbers of fathers are voluntarily abandoning their children. Moreover, those studies addressing the question have arrived at a rather different conclusion:

  • In the largest federally funded study ever undertaken on the subject, psychologist Sanford Braver found the "deadbeat dad" who walks out on his family and evades child support "does not exist in significant numbers."22
  • Braver found women initiate at least two-thirds of divorces, and that the cause of action is rarely desertion, adultery or violence.23

Other studies found much higher proportions of divorce proceedings are initiated by women:

  • Researcher Shere Hite reports that 91 percent of divorces are initiated by wives.24
  • And David Chambers claims "the wife is the moving party in divorce actions seven times out of eight."25

Women are almost always awarded custody of the children, leading one research team to conclude that "who gets the children is by far the most important component in deciding who files for divorce."26 Conversely, this indicates that it is often fathers who want to keep families intact, and that aspects of unilateral divorce, such as child custody, favors the wife and mother over the husband and father.

"Unilateral divorce favors the partner who wants to end a marriage over the one who wants to maintain an intact family."

Evidence on Unmarried Fathers. Compared with divorced fathers, the circumstances of unmarried fathers, usually younger and poorer, are more difficult to document. Yet here too the evidence contradicts the stereotype of the irresponsible father who abandons his children. For example, according to one study of low-income, unmarried, noncustodial fathers aged 16 to 25:27

  • Young unmarried fathers are not particularly promiscuous - 63 percent had only one child, 82 percent had children by only one mother, 50 percent had been in a serious relationship with the mother at the time of pregnancy, and only 3 percent knew the mother of their child "only a little."
  • They are involved in their children's lives - 75 percent visited their child in the hospital, 70 percent saw their children at least once a week, 50 percent took their child to the doctor, and large percentages reported bathing, feeding, dressing and playing with their children.
  • They want to fulfill their financial responsibilities - 85 percent provided informal child support in the form of cash or purchased goods such as diapers, clothing and toys.

Furthermore, a study of low-income fathers in England found "the most common reason given by the fathers for not having more contact with their children was the mothers' reluctance to let them. . . . Most of the men were proud to be seen as competent caregivers and displayed a knowledge of child-care issues."28

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