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The Proof Is in: Father Absence Harms Child Well-Being

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National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) was founded 20 years ago because some very smart people realized that the most consequential social trend of our time is widespread father absence in the lives of our nation's children. They realized that growing up in a home without a dad increased the risk that a child would experience a host of poor outcomes in their immediate and distant futures. These outcomes include increased risk of living in poverty, performing poorly in school, emotional and behavioral problems, becoming violent, getting pregnant (or getting someone pregnant) as a teen, winding up in prison or jail, and committing suicide.

Despite reams of data that NFI has compiled in six editions of Father Facts (the most comprehensive collection of data available on the consequences of father absence and the benefits of father involvement for children), the recognition among people across the political spectrum of the need to combat father absence, and the commitment of many private and public funders to addressing this problem, there are still some scholars and members of the public who are not convinced that dads are important to children. Many believe that family structure doesn't really matter, as long as children are cared for and loved by someone, anyone. One valid reason for the skepticism among scholars, at least, is the lack of rigorous analytical methods employed in much of the research.

Late last year, researchers Sara McLanahan, Laura Tach, and Daniel Schneider stepped into the fray with their review of nearly 50 studies that employed innovative, rigorous designs to examine the causal effects of father absence. Published in the Annual Review of Sociology, "The Causal Effects of Father Absence" examined studies that focused on the relationship between father absence and four outcomes for children: educational attainment, mental health, relationship formation and stability, and labor force success. Although these studies varied in the use of analytical approaches and found different effect sizes, they prove beyond reproach that father absence causes poor outcomes for children in each of these areas.

This is a critical distinction. The old adage, "correlation does not imply causation," does not apply to the effects of father absence on children. In other words, for many of our most intractable social ills affecting children, father absence is to blame.

Furthermore, as an anthropologist, what impressed me about the review is not only its inclusion of studies that employed a variety of analytical approaches methods; it also included studies from nine countries, mostly developed countries (including the U.S.) but also developing countries. Consequently, this cross-cultural analysis of research lends strength and credibility to the conclusion about the devastating effects of father absence. It also supports other recent research on the importance of family structure to child well being, which I wrote about in a recent post on this blog. Father absence isn't just a U.S. problem -- it's a human problem.

As president of NFI and a father who has dedicated his career to seeing as many children as possible grow up with both of their parents, I find one particular conclusion of these scholars very sobering given that the U.S. has reached an all-time high in the number of children born to single parents: the earlier in their lives that children experience father absence the more pronounced are its effects.

Despite all of this evidence staring Americans in the face, too many of us just don't get it, or worse choose to ignore the evidence. Our primary and recognized ignorance has to change if we are to make a real difference in the quality of life for millions of our nation's children living in father-absent homes, and the millions who will follow if we don't reverse this destructive trend.