The smallest and most fundamental form of government is the family, and it is falling apart. Americans across the political spectrum are beginning to recognize it.
President Obama, in this year’s State of the Union address, said he wanted to work to “strengthen families by removing the financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples, and doing more to encourage fatherhood – because what makes you a man isn’t the ability to conceive a child; it’s having the courage to raise one.”
He is exactly right.
Obama’s own marriage, of course, provides a shining example of a strong family. But he comes from a broken family himself, and knows what it is to have an absent father.
Until recent human history, the vast majority of children lived with their fathers. Today, according to the Family Research Council’s Marriage and Religion Research Institute, less than half of 17-year-olds have always lived with their intact biological family. That figure is only 17 percent for African-Americans, compared to 1941 when it was 90 percent.
As Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation has shown, the best anti-poverty program is marriage: When a child’s father is married to his mother, the probability of the child’s living in poverty drops by 82 percent.
Absent fathers don’t just harm their children economically. A father’s influence on children is documented. Adolescents without dads in their lives tend to exhibit more anti-social behavior. Social science indicates that fathers play a different and complementary role to mothers in raising children, particularly sons.
A story told by James Dobson in the book “Bringing Up Boys” vividly illustrates the real consequences of fatherless homes. He describes an outreach ministry that visited a prison to help inmates easily send cards to their mothers on Mother’s Day. The event was a spectacular success, Dobson writes. So the ministry decided to do a similar event for Father’s Day. But on that day, not a single inmate sought help to send his father a card. This anecdote reflects what we know from social science and Census Bureau data. Fatherless homes are more likely to be the starting place for those who end up in the criminal justice system.
All of this is not to blame single mothers, many of whom are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances. They would be the first to say how tough it is to go it alone.
It is especially important for civil society groups, congregations and extended families to do their best to support single parents. Mentoring from older men can be a great encouragement to young men whose fathers aren’t around.
Instead of relying on backup plans, though, we’d all be better off with more fathers and intact families. Fathers are the first line of defense and, along with mothers, the most important people in the lives of children.
If American culture doesn’t honor the role of fathers, young people won’t understand the importance of young men growing up in responsibility. Rather than honoring fatherhood, though, too often our society minimizes the importance of fathers in the home. So much so that a live-in dad is seen, at best, as optional.
Over time, what President Obama calls the courage of fatherhood could inspire generations of young men to make family a central part of their goals, hopes and dreams. But America’s parents, educators and other cultural leaders should explain why dads are so invaluable. Writer Jim Trelease cites a study showing that boys whose fathers read to them scored significantly higher in reading. Trelease writes poignantly about how boys imitate their fathers.
This and similar material is needed in every corner of society. And not only so men may understand their crucial role, but so we may break the cycle of broken homes and poverty.
Derrick Morgan is vice president for domestic and economic policy at The Heritage Foundation. Write him in care of The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, D.C. 20002.
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