Academic journal article The Future of Children

Capabilities and Contributions of Unwed Fathers

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Capabilities and Contributions of Unwed Fathers

Article excerpt

Unwed fathers are a heterogeneous and evolving group. Many become fathers when they are quite young and have little ability to support a family above the poverty threshold. About half begin their experience as a father living with their child and cohabiting with the child's mother. Although the rest do not live with their newborn child, most have a romantic relationship with their child's mother and are closely involved with the infant. Over time, however, the fathers' involvement with their children erodes; when the children reach age five, only about 36 percent of fathers live with their child and of those who live apart, half have not visited the child within the previous month. (1)

The majority of unwed fathers are men with a modest or poor education. Only about 12 percent have an associate's or bachelor's degree, a rate far below the 35 to 40 percent figure among all men. Only about one in four earns more than $25,000 a year. Young unwed fathers have extremely low earnings, and many survive economically by living with parents or other family members. They pay little in child support, but they do spend considerable time with their children in the years soon after birth. As their earnings increase, their financial support increases as well, but connections with their children often fray. Men who lose touch with their children often experience additional problems. They are likely to see their earnings stagnate, they are less likely to provide financial support, and they often find themselves with new obligations when they father children with another partner. Even when unwed fathers pay child support, their contributions--in cash and time--to their child's well-being are far less than they would be if they were resident fathers.

By contrast, the unwed fathers who marry or move in with their child's mother follow a more positive path. They earn considerably higher wages and work substantially more than unwed fathers who do not marry or cohabit. Among noncustodial fathers aged twenty-five to thirty-nine, married high school dropouts earn about $2,700 more than unwed high school graduates (with no college) and $16,000 more than unwed high school dropouts. (2) Although many unwed fathers marry or cohabit with their child's mother at least temporarily, most do not. The tendency of unwed fathers to increase their earnings substantially when they marry or cohabit indicates that many are not realizing their full earnings potential. Another possibility is that an unrelated improvement in their labor market situation made these fathers more successful in the marriage market.

The better educated the unwed father, the higher his earnings and the more rapidly his earnings grow; high school graduates earn 25 to 33 percent more than dropouts. (3) In the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study sample of men who became fathers in the late 1990s, more than one-third of unwed fathers had not completed high school. In that sample, dropping out of school was closely associated with having been incarcerated; 45 percent of fathers who had been in prison previously had not earned a high school degree. Thus, a significant share of fathers faced two critical barriers to attaining adequate earnings--both poor education and a history of imprisonment. In a national sample of unwed fathers drawn from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), nearly 25 percent lacked a high school diploma. In both the Fragile Families and SIPP samples, although few unwed fathers earned an associate's or bachelor's degree, those who did so achieved solid levels of earnings.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given their modest resources and increasing disengagement from their children and their children's mothers, one-half to two-thirds of unwed fathers provide little or no financial support to their children. Over the past fifteen years, the child support system has made great strides in establishing paternity among this group, but it has been less successful in increasing total support payments, both formal and informal. …

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