In Defense of Unwed Dads

Nearly 41% of children are born to unwed mothers. Most of the research has focused on them and their moms, especially those at the bottom of the income scale.

But, of course, for every unwed mother there’s a dad — not necessarily unmarried, mind you.

In most cases, however, it seems he is. According to several studies, about half of unmarried parents were living together when their children were born.

But they often break up. And when that happens, a high percent of fathers disengage, as Robert Lehrman reports in a broad review of the “capabilities and contributions” of unwed fathers.

One study he cites found that by the time their kids were five, nearly half the dads hadn’t seen them for a month. Thirty-seven percent had had no contact with them for two years.

This would seem to feed some well-worn stereotypes — fathers who shrug off responsibilities for their children, including child support. The infamous “deadbeat dads.”

A new book by sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson challenges the stereotypes, as its title indicates — Doing the Best I Can.

The book is the product of seven years of research in Camden, New Jersey and low-income Philadelphia neighborhoods — much of it in-depth interviews with unwed fathers.

The pre-history, as the introduction indicates, has a strongly racial flavor.

In public discourse, we can trace it back to 1965, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan identified out-of-wedlock births as a symptom of the breakdown of the Negro family.

Or since his work was swiftly marginalized, to the mid-1980s, when Bill Moyers hosted a special CBS report on “The Vanishing Family: A Crisis in Black America.”

What’s happened since is that unwed fatherhood has become more of a class phenomenon, Edin says.

Different studies provide somewhat different figures — none that I’ve found very current because they all rely on an ongoing study of a group of children born in big cities between 1998 and 2000.

According to these “fragile families” data, a majority of unwed fathers are racial or ethnic minorities, with black, non-Hispanics accounting for 46%.

But other research clearly indicates that race/ethnicity itself isn’t the key factor. The biggest difference between unwed fathers and fathers married to the mothers of their newborns is income.

In 2005, the former earned, on average, only $15,465 at the time their children were born — about $18,100 less than new, married fathers.

More than half of the “fragile families” dads who were still living with the mothers by the time their children were five earned less than $15,000.

The main explanation for these very low earnings is lack of the formal education credentials that are increasingly the passport to living wage jobs.

In the same fragile families sample cited above, 81.6% of the unwed dads had, at most, a high school diploma or GED. More than 45% of them had less. A mere 2.2% had a college degree.

Most low-income mothers understandably want a husband who’s a reliable breadwinner. It’s their top priority, Edin found in an earlier interview-based study.

And both they and their low-income partners apparently share the growing view that marriage should await financial stability — at something like a middle-class level, it seems, since they speak of a home, a car, a wedding we can assume isn’t at the courthouse.

This helps explain why only a fraction of unwed parents in the fragile families sample view childbirth as a signal to marry, even though 82% of them were living together or otherwise “romantically involved” at the time their children were born.

Also why the fathers tend to disengage over time — not always willingly, however. A fair number, the Edin-Melson team found, were pushed away when the moms found a better-off partner.

Perhaps the most important thing the team found, however, is that the unwed dads welcome fatherhood. They want a relationship with their child.

They have what Edin calls a “father thirst” — and among blacks especially, a determination to do a better job of fathering than their own dads did.

So the unwed dads aren’t, by and large, men “who impregnate women and selfishly flee,” as arch-conservative William Bennett fulminated.

Nor are they reflecting a biological propensity to “hit and run” sexuality, as family values champion David Blankenhorn claimed.

“They want to be nurturers,” Edin says. But our public policies treat them as “paychecks and not as parents,” i.e. focus only on ensuring they pay child support.

Even when they can’t — because they’re in jail, for example, and likely to return because they can’t pay the accumulated debt.

Even when — or perhaps especially when — the money is used to reimburse federal and state welfare payments, rather than to provide poor mothers with some additional funds for their children’s needs.

We have publicly-funded “responsible fatherhood” programs — and have had for some time.

Seems to me we’d do better to recognize that unwed dads want to be responsible and do what we can to make that possible.

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2 Responses to In Defense of Unwed Dads

  1. […] paper by sociologists Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin (yes, the same one whose work I used for my post on unwed […]

  2. […] in their children’s lives, according to the experts who participated. But, as we know from other research, they’re hindered by low earnings and poor […]

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