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A detailed analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau and South Carolina Departments of Health & Environmental Control, Education, Juvenile Justice, and Social Services shows a correlation between father absence and a variety of economic and social problems afflicting the state. The data reveals that those counties with higher rates of father absence tend to also experience higher rates of high school dropouts, juvenile crime, teen pregnancy, and welfare participation. This finding is consistent with dozens of other academic studies conducted around the country and summarized in this report.
Those counties with above average rates of father absence per 1,000 households averaged a food stamp participation rate of 187 per 1,000, nearly double those counties with below average rates of father absence. Counties with above average rates of father absence experienced 74 live births to unwed mothers per 1,000 females compared to 63 for all other counties. A similar gap existed in the categories of juvenile crime, high school dropout and households receiving public assistance.
The report includes individual scores in the categories of father absence, teen pregnancy, high school dropout rates, juvenile crime, food stamp and welfare participation for all 46 counties in South Carolina.
Both the state of South Carolina and the nation have experienced general economic expansion and prosperity during the past several decades. Despite this economic success, South Carolina has increasingly faced what observers describe as “social decay.” This “decay” is often characterized by high crime rates, persistent poverty in some sectors of society, high teen pregnancy rates, and poor academic performance. Together, these pathologies have created a climate in which many children in South Carolina today are decidedly worse than just 20 years ago.
The Council on Families in America reported in March 1995: “The weight of evidence points to a most disturbing reality. Child well-being is deteriorating. Almost all of the key indicators point toward this conclusion: rates of delinquency and crime (including an alarming juvenile homicide rate), drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, depression, the growing number of children in poverty, and others. Some experts have suggested that the current generation of children and youth is the first in our nation’s history to be less well-off – psychologically, socially, economically, and morally – than their parents were at the same age.”
Other national assessments have reached the same conclusion. A study by the National Association of State Boards of Education reported that “never before has one generation of American teenagers been less healthy, less cared for, or less prepared for life than their parents were at the same age.” In 1991, the bipartisan National Commission on Children, chaired by Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, concluded that “substantial evidence suggests that the quality of life for many of America’s children has declined.”
The Fatherhood Connection
During the last half-century, social science has advanced numerous theories to explain these social maladies. Poverty has often been cited as the cause of crime, teen pregnancy, and poor academic performance. Yet more than 30 years of government spending to alleviate what was seen as a resource problem has failed to solve these problems. Indeed, it has yielded precious few results. And the statistical evidence continues to mount that, by most measures, the lives of our children have become worse.
A new body of research now points to a link between absent fathers and a variety of social pathologies regardless of socioeconomic background, race, and educational attainment. This research reveals that fatherless homes are much more prone to poverty, criminal activity, teen pregnancy, suicide, poor academic performance, child abuse, and psychiatric problems. Although no single explanation is likely to sufficiently explain all of these problems, the growing mountain of literature in this area warrants public discussion.
Throughout history there have been homes without fathers. But, in the past, the principal cause of fatherlessness was paternal death. About 15 percent of all American children born in 1870 had experienced the death of their fathers by the time they turned 15. And only slightly more than half reached age 15 with both parents still alive. At the tum of the century, middle-aged widowed men outnumbered middle-aged divorced men by more than 20 to 1.
This rate of fatherlessness, however, was comparatively low when compared to present-day rates. Fatherlessness today is overwhelmingly a choice by men not to participate in raising children. This has occurred through two primary means: the increase in nonmarital childbearing and the rising rate of divorce.
The rate of nonmarital childbearing has grown dramatically. In 1980, one in five births in the United States was nonmarital; in 1992, almost one in three births were to unmarried women.
Compounding the problem of fatherlessness is the high divorce rate. Social science research indicates that, despite the best intentions, divorce largely translates to children being raised with minimal participation of the father. According to University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank Furstenberg, three-fourths of all children of divorce have contact with their father less than two days a month.7 Research also indicates, that during the past year, only one child of divorce in six, saw his or her father as often as once a week, and close to half did not see their father at all. As time goes by, contact becomes even more infrequent. Ten years after a marriage breaks up, more than two-thirds of children report not having seen their father for a year.
A national trend away from two-parent homes has evolved in recent decades. Whether through nonmarital childbearing or divorce, children are being raised in ever-increasing numbers in single-mother homes.
The Price of Fatherlessness
The following review of professional literature would offer insight into the burgeoning body of evidence that links father absence to a variety of social problems. A review of the social science and medical literature indicates that father absence leads to poverty, teen pregnancy, crime, psychological problems, homelessness, child health problems, suicide, sexual and physical abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, and poor academic performance.
This national research conducted with differing research methodologies conforms with findings as they relate to South Carolina.
Current research consistently demonstrates that absent-father homes are much more likely to be mired in poverty. Studies also indicate that children who come from absent-father homes are more likely to live in poverty as adults than those who grew up in poor families with two parents.
- Persons in female-headed families were the most likely demographic group to be chronically poor. One in five female-householder families reported income below the poverty threshold during the 24-month period of 1991-1992. Compared to persons in female-householder families, 1.3 percent of persons in married-couple families were poor for all 24 months in 1991-1992. The median time spent in poverty during this period for persons in female-householder families was 6.4 months compared with only 3 .9 months for persons in married-couple families.
- Fatherless children are five times more likely to live in poverty than children living with both parents.
- Over 50 percent of all new welfare cases are due to births to unmarried women. More than 90 percent of the current AFDC case load is made up of absent-father families.
A wide array of studies and surveys now indicates that there is a greater likelihood that both boys and girls from absent-father homes will be sexually active outside marriage and will initiate sexual activity at younger ages than their counterparts from two-parent homes. The girls also have a much higher rate of pregnancy.
- “Daughters from female-headed households are much more likely than daughters from two-parent families to themselves become single parents … [L]iving with a single mother at age 16 increases a daughter’s risk of becoming a household head by 72 percent for whites and 100 percent for blacks.”
- Researchers conclude that women reared in single-parent households engaged in sexual activity outside marriage much more often than young women reared in intact families.
- Professor William Marsiglio of Oberlin College documents a pattern of heightened sexual activity for teenage boys. In a survey of more than 5,500 young American men, Dr. Marsiglio found that “males who had not lived with two parents at age 14 were overrepresented in the subsample of teenage fathers. Only 17 percent of all young men surveyed lived in one-parent households at age 14; yet, among boys who had fathered an illegitimate child as a teenager, almost 30 percent came from single- parent households. In other words, teen boys from one-parent households are almost twice as likely to father a child out of wedlock as teen boys from two-parent families.”
- White women who had lived in single-parent families created through divorce or nonmarital birth had a very difficult time building successful families as adults. Compared to white women raised in intact families, these women were 53 percent more likely to have teenage marriages, 111 percent more likely to have teenage births, and 164 percent more likely to have premarital births.
- Researchers from the University of California at San Diego discovered that most of the teen mothers in their study did not have contact with their fathers. Among the girls pregnant for the first time, only 14 percent lived with both parents; among the girls in a repeat pregnancy, only 2 percent lived with both parents.
- Scholars noted that daughters in one-parent homes are much more likely to engage in premarital sexual activity than are daughters in two-parent homes. The research team also found that the sexual activity of sons increases markedly when a two-parent home breaks up through divorce or separation.
Extensive surveys and intensive analysis of youths from absent-father homes reveal that they have dramatically higher rates of criminal activity. They are highly overrepresented in almost every criminal category, including both violent and nonviolent crimes. Even studies that control for poverty and race factors clearly show a link between absent-father homes and criminal activity.
- Violent criminals are overwhelmingly males who grew up without fathers: 60 percent of American rapists, 72 percent of adolescent murderers, and 70 percent of long-term prison inmates.
- A young male is twice as likely to engage in criminal behavior if he is raised without a father.
- Researchers at the University of Maryland studied crime as it related to more than 11,000 urban residents in Florida, upstate New York, and Missouri. They discovered that when differences in family structure were taken into account, crime rates ran much the same in rich and poor neighborhoods and among black, white, and Hispanic populations. They found “the percentage of single-parent households with children between the ages of 12 and 20 is significantly associated with rates of violent crime and burglary.” The researchers concluded in their findings that race and poverty were not significant factors in determining crime rates.
- Children who cause the most trouble in school most likely come from divorced families. In a new study of 23 white adolescents, their mothers, and their teachers, researchers set out to examine antisocial behavior. The worst troublemaker was far more likely to come from a broken home than was the child who was well-behaved. Out of the seven worst troublemakers in the survey, six came from divorced homes.
- “One-parent families and families with multiple marital disruptions are apparently unable to mount effective means of counteracting pathological reactions that have developed in their children.”
- Another study concludes that teenagers from broken homes are much more likely to become delinquents than are teens from intact families.
- In a survey of almost 2,000 children and adolescents referred by the Circuit Court of Cook County-Juvenile Division for psychiatric evaluation, researchers documented that psychotic delinquents rarely come from intact families. Of the 2,000 surveyed:
- Young black men raised in single-parent families on welfare and living in public housing are twice as likely to engage in criminal activities than black men raised in two-parent families also on welfare and in public housing. Criminologists from the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin examined data from hundreds of communities in Great Britain and concluded that family disruption-either through divorce or illegitimacy-leads to mugging, violence against strangers, auto theft, burglary and other crimes. “Two-parent households,” the authors of the study explain, ”provide increased supervision and guardianship not only for their own children and household property, but also for the general activities in the community.”
- Compared to boys from two-parent families, adolescent boys from disrupted families are not only more likely to be incarcerated for delinquent offenses, but they also manifest worse conduct while incarcerated.
- Seventy percent of juveniles in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes.
- “Consistent with earlier research, youths from broken homes reported significantly more delinquent behavior than youths from intact homes.”
- The author concluded in a major study based on extensive interviews with juvenile delinquents that “many of the members of disruptive groups and almost all of the street-gang members came from broken or severely disturbed and deprived homes. Many were from single-parent families where the mother had been unable or unwilling to establish adequate behavioral controls over her male children.”
- In a study of 36 sexual murder cases, researchers found that in 17 cases the biological father left the home before the boy reached 12 years. “Most offenders said that they did not have a satisfactory relationship with the father and that the relationship with the mother was highly ambivalent in emotional quality.”
- ” … research on antisocial behavior consistently illustrates that adolescents in mother-only households and in conflict-ridden families are more prone to commit delinquent acts.”
- In a survey of 108 violent rapists-all of them repeat offenders–researchers found that 60 percent came from single-parent homes. Among rapists motivated by what they call “displaced anger,” fully 80 percent came from single-parent homes.
Children from absent-father homes, whether through out-of-wedlock birth or divorce, have substantially higher rates of depression, anxiety, moodiness, and phobia than their peers.
- Researchers studied a number of latency-aged and adolescent girls who lived in absent-father homes. According to these scholars, the girls developed “particular coping patterns in response to the absence of the father.” In a sample of 144 child and adolescent patients at the University of Michigan Children’s Psychiatric Hospital whose parents had divorced they discovered:
- 63 percent experienced subjective psychological problems (anxiety, sadness, pronounced moodiness, phobias, and depression)
- 56 percent had poor grades or grades substantially below their ability and/or recent past performance
- 43 percent exhibited aggression toward their parents
- Finnish researchers found that children from single-parent homes were at significantly greater risk to develop most psychiatric disorders than children from intact homes.
- “Children who have been brought up in ‘broken homes’ … tend to develop a high rate of borderline pathology [like antisocial behavior, sadness, self-esteem problems].”
- “A large national survey revealed that more than twice as many children of divorce, compared to youngsters from intact families, had seen a mental health professional. In a representative national sample, men and women who were 16 years of age or younger when their parents divorced reported significantly higher divorce rates, more work-related problems, and higher levels of emotional distress than did their counterparts who grew up in intact families. . . Clinical and research investigations have indicated that children of divorce constitute a population at risk for developing particular emotional, social, and behavioral problems that either persist or first appear years after the marital rupture. Prominent among these are aggressive and antisocial problems, sadness, depression and self-esteem problems.”
- This study concludes that teens living in single-parent households are more likely to suffer from depression than teens living in intact families.
- “[C]omparison of children who have from an early age been consistently deprived of paternal influence with those who have had actively and positively involved fathers clearly reveals that the former are generally less adequate in their functioning and development.”
- Children whose parents separate are significantly more likely to experience conduct and mood disorders, engage in early sexual activity, and abuse drugs. This effect is especially strong for children whose parents separated when they were five years old or younger.
- Compared to living with both biological parents, sons and daughters of divorced or separated parents exhibit significantly more conduct problems. Daughters of divorced or separated mothers evidenced significantly higher rates of internalizing problems, such as anxiety and depression.
- “The results of the present study suggest that father loss through divorce is associated with diminished self-concepts in children … “
The child who runs away from home and ends up on the street is likely to come from a father-absent family.
- In a study of over 500 homeless and runaway youth in New Jersey, Professor Paul Shane from Rutgers University found “family breakdown as a major cause of homelessness among youth.” He found a remarkably low 14 percent of the youth came from “a family with both biological parents.” He concludes, “In general, homeless youth are more likely to come from female-headed, single-parent homes.”
- Researchers conducted a survey of 30 parents with children in a homeless shelter in San Diego. They talked with only two fathers and with relatively few married mothers. A total of 63 percent of the homeless parents interviewed were living without a spouse.
Child Health/Infant Mortality
A child born into an absent-father home is more likely to face serious health problems in early childhood. They also suffer from higher rates of infant mortality.
- “An enormous-and growing-number of American children suffer from a serious health threat inflicted on them by their parents. Bluntly put, their health is at risk because they have been born out of wedlock… Indeed, if it were a medical condition rather than a social disorder, illegitimacy would be seen as one of the leading killers of children in America today.”
- “Unmarried mothers are less likely to receive adequate prenatal care and less likely to gain adequate weight during pregnancy. Unmarried mothers are twice as likely to smoke while pregnant and, among mothers aged 20 years and over, about twice as likely to have a low birth weight baby. Low birth weight is a major predictor of infant illness and mortality.”
- “White babies born outside of marriage were five times as likely to have received no prenatal care as white babies born in marriage. Black babies born outside of marriage were nearly four times as likely to have received no prenatal care as black babies born in marriage.”
- Children living in father-absent households are significantly less likely to use both preventive and illness-related ambulatory care compared with children in two-parent families. These differences exist even after taking into account differences in income and health insurance coverage.
- Children in absent-father homes are at greater risk of being involved in unhealthy behavior because “adolescents in mother-only families are more susceptible to peer influence than those living with both natural parents.”
- A review of the medical literature in 1991 concluded that the major cause of America’s high infant mortality rate is the high rate of young mothers giving birth outside of marriage.
- The National Center for Health Statistics concluded that both black and white unmarried women have a significantly higher risk of having infants with very low or moderately low birth weights compared to black and white married women.
- Children who live apart from their fathers are 4.3 times more likely to smoke cigarettes as teenagers than children growing up with their fathers in the home.
- After adjustment for social and demographic characteristics, the results of a multivariate analysis reveal that children from disrupted marriages had a 20 to 30 percent higher probability of having experienced common health problems like accidents, injuries and poisonings than did other children.
Although youths may attempt suicide for a variety of reasons, research clearly indicates that those from father-absent homes are much more likely to attempt suicide than their contemporaries from two-parent families.
- Psychiatrists at the New York State Psychiatric Institute surveyed 752 families at random, dividing the children into those who had never attempted suicide and those who had done so at least once. The two groups had few differences in terms of age, family income, race and religion. But those who attempted suicide were “more likely to live in non-intact family settings than were the nonattempters. More than half of the attempters lived in households with no more than one biological parent, whereas only about a third of the nonattempters lived in such a setting.”
- “The growing incidence of family dissolutions, and the resulting single-parent households along with the attendant life-style, makes childhood a difficult period,” researchers note. Analysis of studies comparing youth who attempt suicide and those who do not reveal that among those who attempted suicide, “family disruption and disintegration played a significant role.”
- In an in-depth analysis of the suicides of eight women, scholars state that one of their “most striking findings” is “the strong influence exerted by mothers, coupled with the lack of involvement of fathers in their subjects.” They note, “This finding of a high incidence of early father loss is consistent with previous reports of an association between early father loss and adult depression and suicide.”
Sexual and Physical Child Abuse
The apparent rise in sexual and physical child abuse is, in part, the result of growing father absence. When the biological father is not present in the home, the odds that a child will be the victim of such abuse rises dramatically.
- The increase in mother-headed households and the corresponding decrease in father-headed households paralleled a 158 percent increase in child abuse and neglect in the eight years from 1976 to 1984. Less than three percent of sexual abuse of girls was by biological fathers, and 17 percent by stepfathers. Fully 37 percent of child maltreatment occurred in mother-headed households, versus 23 percent in all U.S. families.
- A Canadian investigation found that preschoolers in Hamilton, Ontario, living with one biological parent and one stepparent in 1983, were 40 times more likely to be a victim of child abuse than like-aged children living with biological parents.
Father absence increases the chance that a youth is likely to abuse alcohol or consume illicit drugs. This holds true even when controlling the factors such as economic status and race.
- “Adolescent girls who had experienced parental divorce when they were younger than six or between six and nine years old reported becoming involved with alcohol or drugs in proportions higher than did girls from intact families.
- “The absence of the father from the home affects significantly the behavior of adolescents, and results in greater use of alcohol and marijuana and higher rates of sexual activity. The impact of the father’s absence from the home is apparently greater on males than on females. The alcohol and marijuana use and sexual activity rates for father-absent males is greater than for any other group … Father-absent males reported the highest levels of alcohol and marijuana use and sexual activity.”
- In this eight-year study of 654 young people, psychologists at the University of California at Los Angeles found that early parental influence “exerted a potent and pervasive influence on a teenager that apparently continues for many years into adulthood.” The authors suggest that “inadequate family structure and a lack of positive familial relationships” often lead to “substance use … as a coping mechanism to relieve depression and anxiety.”
- Columbia University researchers along with colleagues from the University of Puerto Rico examined the drug use patterns of Puerto Rican youth in both New York City and Puerto Rico. They discovered that there was more drug use among Puerto Rican students living in non-intact households than among students living in intact homes. Among students living in non-intact households, three quarters lived in female-headed households, suggesting to the researchers that father absence had an influence on drug use.
A wide array of research now indicates that children from father-absent homes tend to perform poorly in school when compared to their contemporaries. Most interestingly, this holds true even when excluding economic and racial factors. Researchers stress that the problem lies not with intelligence but with academic performance.
- In a study of child academic performance, the authors concluded, “Thirty percent of the children in the study experienced a marked decrease in their academic performance following parental separation, and this was evident three years later.”
- In a study that tracked the development of 375,000 high school students between 1960 and 1971, children born out-of-wedlock were found to have lower cognitive scores and lower educational aspirations than children born to married couples. The effect was especially strong for boys.
- The proportion of children who had repeated a grade was far lower when the child lived with both biological parents than when the child lived in a non-intact family (12 percent compared to 22-30 percent).
- Adolescent girls whose experience of divorce occurred before they were six more frequently reported skipping school than did girls from intact families or girls whose parents divorced when they were between the ages of six and nine.”
- Nationally, 29.7 percent of children living with a never-married mother and 21.5 percent of children living with a divorced mother have repeated a grade in school, compared to only 11.6 percent of children living with both biological parents.
- Of college-age students from disrupted families, only 67 percent attended college as compared with 85 percent of all students who attended the same high schools.
- Scholars examined a large body of research to determine the academic performance of children in a variety of family structures. To make sure the differences in academic performance were not due to background factors, they applied a multivariate regression analysis to the data. They concluded that parental marital status affected achievement. They noted that children of “matrifocal [absent father] families have significantly lower scholastic achievement than children raised in two-parent families … “
- A major study revealed that students living without their fathers had dramatically lower academic performance.
Students who had to repeat a grade:
- 12 percent with both biological parents
- 22 percent with a formerly married mother and no father
- 23 percent with a mother and stepfather
- 29 percent with a never-married mother and no father
Students who were expelled or suspended:
- 4 percent with both biological parents
- 11 percent with a formerly married mother and no father
- 8 percent with a mother and stepfather
- 15 percent with a never-married mother and no father
- ” … children from single-parent homes tended to have significantly lower academic and personal-social competencies than did children from two-parent families … [S]ingle-parent status resulting from divorce predicts poor academic and social school entry competence in addition to and independent of SES [socio-economic status].”
- University of Georgia researchers discovered that children from broken homes had greater difficulties both with their classes and with their relations with their peers. “Adolescents from intact homes had higher grades and were perceived as more socially competent by teachers,” they conclude.
- Researchers from Johns Hopkins University and North Carolina State University found that black first-grade students from married-couple households outperform their peers from single-parent households. In their conclusion, they stress that these gaps cannot be explained by economic differences nor by any discernible differences in initial ability levels.
- Based on a study of nearly 3,000 Canadian children ages 4 to 16, the scholars found that “single-parent children are 1.7 times as likely to demonstrate poor school performance as are two-parent children.”