Academic journal article The Future of Children

Welfare Reform, Fertility, and Father Involvement

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Welfare Reform, Fertility, and Father Involvement

Article excerpt

SUMMARY

Recognizing that most poor families are single-parent families, the federal welfare reform law of 1996 emphasized the responsibility of both parents to support their children. In addition to strengthening the child support enforcement system, the law included several provisions designed to decrease childbearing outside of marriage and to promote two-parent families. This article focuses on the important role that fathers play in children's lives and how public policies have affected childbearing and father involvement. Key observations are:

* Compared with children living with both biological parents, children in father-absent families often have fewer economic and socioemotional resources from their parents, and do not fare as well on many outcome measures.

* Efforts to reduce the rising number of father-absent families by focusing on preventing unwanted pregnancy among unmarried women, especially teen girls, have met with some success; those programs seeking to alter adolescents' life opportunities in addition to providing education or family planning services appear to hold the most promise.

* Efforts to encourage greater father involvement by focusing almost exclusively on increasing absent parents' child support payments reap only minimal benefits for poor children because their absent parents often have few resources and little incentive to make support payments.

* To date, efforts to increase the emotional involvement of unmarried fathers with their children have produced disappointing results, but new research suggests that such programs can make a difference when targeting fathers at the time of a child's birth.

Many children spend some time living away from their fathers, deprived of the financial and emotional resources they can provide. Because of the importance of fathers to child well-being, the authors conclude that new directions in research and public policies are needed to encourage greater father involvement across the wide diversity of family arrangements in society today.

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The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 represented a historic shift in U.S. policy toward poor families and children. (1) In addition to requiring that low-income parents assume greater responsibility for their own economic wellbeing through increased work, the reform legislation included provisions to discourage births outside of marriage, to promote and strengthen two-parent families, and to encourage father involvement (at least with respect to financial support). These provisions reflect--and contribute to--a growing awareness of the importance of fathers for children.

Until recently, discussions about welfare policy have largely excluded fathers, except with respect to their frequent failure to pay child support. Despite rising concerns since the 1980s about the negative consequences of out-of-wedlock childbearing and single-parenthood (particularly for children, but also for society), most policy and research about families on welfare have focused only on single mothers. However, recent research on fatherhood has pointed to the range of contributions that fathers can make in their children's lives, (2) as well as to the barriers that some fathers face in providing economic and emotional support for their children.

This article draws on recent research to examine the role of fathers in children's lives and how welfare policy may affect father involvement. The first section reviews demographic trends affecting low-income families and outlines the evidence concerning the effects of father involvement on fertility and child well-being. Policies aimed at decreasing nonmarital fertility and increasing father involvement are described, along with suggestions for ways that programs can better address the needs of disadvantaged fathers and families to promote child well-being. …

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