The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 19, 2016

Public policies about fatherhood should reflect reality

December 8, 2016

Public policies about fatherhood are mostly concerned with child support enforcement. To be sure, men who are able to do so should support their children financially, but fathers can contribute more than money to their children’s well-being. A present, loving father is associated with good health and developmental outcomes.

In recent years, the number of children living separately from their fathers has increased dramatically. Because low-income children are less likely than other children to live with their fathers and some low-income men have trouble paying child support, policymakers have focused on getting low-income fathers to meet those financial obligations.

But these efforts miss an important point: fathers across the income spectrum could be more involved parents, and many low-income fathers have strong, supportive relationships with their children. Our policies should reflect that reality. 

The good news is that, as we found in our new report, most fathers live with their kids: 77 percent of low-income fathers and 84 percent of higher-income fathers, a smaller difference than stereotypes suggest.

No matter their income, fathers who do not live with their children are less involved in their children’s lives. Contrary to stereotypes, not all absentee fathers are low income, and not all higher-income fathers are active, attentive parents.

In general, low-income fathers who live with their kids and higher-income fathers who live with their kids share similar parenting practices. When it comes to engagement with children—for example, taking children to appointments—low-income fathers who live with their children are actually more involved than higher-income fathers who live with their children.

That said, income is associated with a divide in certain parenting practices. Low-income nonresidential fathers are about half as likely as higher-income nonresidential fathers to read aloud to young children and help older children with homework each week. If a goal of parenting is to improve children’s educational outcomes, these discrepancies suggest that parenting classes in fathering programs emphasize these practices.

We need to keep this complex picture in mind when formulating public policies to support children and parents. Federal and local programs established over the past 20 years aim to help mostly low-income fathers be better parents. But our study shows that many low-income nonresidential fathers are responsible dads, and many higher-income nonresidential fathers are not.

Many higher-income dads could benefit from parenting classes and public service campaigns that emphasize the benefits of fathers’ involvement, even though they may be under less economic strain. And couples or separated mothers and fathers of all income levels may benefit from learning coparenting and communication strategies to make it easier for nonresidential fathers to engage with their children. Responsible fatherhood is a message that should be targeted at nonresidential fathers and couples up and down the income spectrum.

A shift in public policies about fatherhood away from an exclusive focus on child support enforcement would be beneficial. Programs like the City University of New York Fatherhood Academy make a promising commitment to support fathers’ emotional and behavioral growth, and similar efforts are worth watching. Programs that acknowledge the more nuanced picture of fathering skills are most likely to improve outcomes for children.

Photo via Shutterstock

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