Here are two trends that should, but probably won’t, set off alarm bells at the headquarters of the “inequality police”:
1) Some 27 percent of American children last year lived apart from their fathers, compared to just 11 percent a half-century earlier.
2) At the same time, those dads who do live with their children are spending much more time actively caring for them each week than in decades past: almost an hour a day, compared to just 20 minutes a day through most of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
These twin trends headlined a new report, “A Tale of Two Fathers,” by the Pew Research Center. And if you embrace the numerous studies indicating brighter prospects for children who grow up in two-parent homes, you ought to find Pew’s pair of data points very troubling.
(By the way, it’s not just dads, in an intact family, who spend more time with their kids. Pew also found married mothers are spending more time caring for their kids now than any time since at least 1965.)
As we recover (slowly) from the Great Recession, we hear a great deal more about other, more immediate factors driving near-term inequality. And there certainly is much on this front to worry anyone, from the Americans whose skill sets don’t match the requirements of those jobs that are opening up, to those whose employment prospects cruelly grow even dimmer the longer they remain out of work.
Household income is a factor in children’s educational attainment and thus their own future job prospects. The unemployment that remains stubbornly high for today’s adults — costing them wages now and the compounding effect of potential wage gains in the years to come — could well have ripple effects for their children for a very long time.
But I expect the parenting disparity revealed in the Pew study to have a comparable, if less remarked-upon, effect.
It doesn’t help that the same men who are worst-positioned coming out of the recession — those with only a high school education or less, those toward the bottom of the earnings scale (if that’s not repetitive) and racial/ethnic minorities — are the most likely to live apart from their children:
And only half of those dads saw their kids more than once a month — although they were much more likely to call or email their kids monthly or even several times a week.
Government has only encouraged these trends toward dad-lessness. The rise in single-parent families coincides with the beginning of the welfare state, aka President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and there’s some evidence the trend has slowed since the welfare reforms of the 1990s.
Yet, the absence of one’s father leaves a “hole in a child’s life that no government can fill.”
So said President Barack Obama. And on that, at least, he and I agree.
– By Kyle Wingfield