Academic journal article Policy & Practice of Public Human Services

What Policymakers Need to Know about FATHERS

Academic journal article Policy & Practice of Public Human Services

What Policymakers Need to Know about FATHERS

Article excerpt

Fathers have captured the nation's attention, and for good reason. High rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing have contributed to a substantial decline in the proportion of children living with their fathers. The public, policymakers, and the media express concern generally about the "breakdown" of the American family and specifically about the absence of appropriate male role models in the lives of many young people. Indeed, research fuels these concerns: Studies show that children who do not live with their biological fathers are at a higher risk for poverty; drug abuse, school drop out, incarceration, and teen pregnancy.

Consequently, public interest has grown for finding both direct and indirect ways to promote "responsible fatherhood." Both in everyday discussions and practical policy applications, this responsibility tends to be defined narrowly as financial responsibility. Regardless of whether a father actually lives with his child or interacts positively with his child, most policy initiatives related to fatherhood are designed to ensure that a father makes an economic contribution to his child's well-being.

Children clearly benefit when such basic needs as food, safe housing, and health care are regularly and adequately met. But a father's contribution to his child's well-being doesn't begin or end with his wallet. Americans also place great value on fathers as protectors, caregivers, role models, and loving parents who encourage their children's development in big and small ways every day. Increasingly, policymakers and practitioners are seeking and finding ways to promote this broader notion of father involvement--from initiatives promoting marriage in communities with high levels of single parenthood, to programs providing counseling and support to existing marriages, to workplace policies that release employed fathers and mothers to attend school meetings or take children to the doctor (Ooms, 1998). These newer efforts combine with longer-standing child support policies and job training programs to form a broad array of pro-fatherhood initiatives.

But these newer efforts are generally small and scattered, and evidence of their success is as yet limited. Many American children, especially those with limited contact with their fathers, continue to lack sufficient financial, caregiving, and emotional support from their fathers. Some research and programmatic experience suggest that many "absent" fathers would like to be a strong, sustained, and essential presence in their children's lives (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 1998). Yet several factors can make this kind of relationship difficult to maintain. Nonresident fathers may have limited contact with their children because of strict custody agreements, the distance they live from their children, or the nature of their relationship with their children's mothers (Arendell, 1992; Dudley, 1991; Ray & Hans, 1997). There are also structural constraints to father involvement, such as a general scarcity of jobs in a community. Certain individual characteristics may also influence how involved a father is with his child. For example, research indicates that a father's level of involvement with his child is associated with his employment status, educational level, and the age at which he became a father.

To design policy initiatives that are effective in promoting father involvement in children's lives, it is valuable to consider all the variations in fathers' life circumstances which may affect their ability or willingness to be involved with their children. We begin our discussion with father involvement.


There are several ways to think about father involvement. One way is to consider whether a father has contact with his child. Researchers use the term accessibility to refer to this form of father involvement (Lamb, Pleck, Charnov & Levine, 1987). …

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