Research Shows Even Low-Income Single Fathers Are Often Highly Motivated Parents

Most unmarried, low-income fathers strive to be good parents, Kathryn Edin, a professor at Harvard University”s Kennedy School of Government, said in a lecture at the Haldeman Center on Friday.

That’s a quotation from this article about a talk Kathryn Edin (pictured) gave at Dartmouth. Edin and fellow researcher Timothy Nelson studied poor, single fathers in Camden, New Jersey over a period of seven years.

Many of these fathers were teenagers. One salient point she makes is that poor fathers in high-crime areas view fatherhood as a heroic undertaking because of the danger of their surroundings.

Here’s Edin quoted on her website at Harvard:

Q. You”ve just touched on your latest research on the role of fatherhood in the lives of unmarried, low income men. Tell us more about that research.

Edin: When we ask guys, “What would your life be like without your children?’ – these are low income fathers that we”ve been interviewing in four cities, Laura Lien, Timothy Nelson and I – we expected them to say, “Life would be so much easier, I”d be so much better off, I wouldn”t have these child support obligations.’ Instead, they say “I”d be dead or in jail. Everything good in my life is because of my kids.’

Edin’s work supports the findings of the Fragile Families & Child Wellbeing study conducted of 5,000 children over five years by Sara McLanahan, Irwin Garfinkel and many others of the best researchers in the field, including Edin. That study has produced a gold mine of data which in turn has produced scores of papers analyzing the findings. Here is the link to the Fragile Families website. I regard it as indispensible to understanding the increasing phenomenon of unmarried parents and their children. The database is large and reliable and the analytical documents are a wealth of information about, among other things, unmarried fathers and children.

It too finds that the vast majority of poor single fathers strongly desire an ongoing relationship with their children, that those relationships tend to erode over time and that the father’s relationship with the mother is the single most important factor in whether he remains a part of his child’s life or not.

Other studies I’ve discussed here show that mothers tend to be the gatekeepers of father involvement with children. If she allows and encourages it, he takes an active role in childrearing; if she criticizes and discourages it, he doesn’t. Still others show that child welfare workers’ attempts to involve fathers in the lives of at-risk children, as an alternative to foster care, are largely controlled by mothers as well. Combine the three and it becomes clear that, even among the poorest and youngest fathers, one of the main things keeping them from parental responsibility is mom.

Further corroborating that, Edin furnished me with an as-yet unpublished paper based on Fragile Families data which, together with much previous research, describes fatherhood as “a ‘package deal’ where a father’s relationship with his child is contingent on his relationship with the mother.” The paper investigates that concept in terms of unmarried parents who tend to move in and out of intimate relationships more readily than do married parents. It finds that mothers moving on to subsequent relationships are a “driving force” behind the decline in father involvement over time. Indeed, a mother’s new relationship is twice as likely to result in reduced father involvement as is a father’s finding a new partner.

There are still those, like former Senator Rick Santorum, who try to convince us that fathers are child-averse. That’s flat not true. Of course some are, but overwhelmingly, fathers want an active, hands-on role in childrearing. That includes the youngest and poorest of dads. It’s long past time that media and public policy start to reflect the truth that social science has known for years.

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