By Dr. Jeffery M. Johnson, PhD.
The 14th Annual International Fatherhood Conference, June 12-15, at the Westin Fort Lauderdale brings attention to the importance of fathers and provides an annual forum for key stakeholders from around the country and locally to discuss and share strategies for strengthening families by increasing the level of positive involvement of fathers in the lives of children.
Fathers are the “forgotten contributors to child development. Fathers are not just breadwinners; they are also caregivers, role models, and teachers, as well as protectors and companions. Scholars point out that boys and girls who grow up with an involved father, as well as an involved mother, have stronger cognitive and motor skills, enjoy higher levels of physical and mental health, become better problem-solvers, and are more confident, curious, and empathetic. Fathers and mothers have complimentary characteristics that work together to impact their children in amazing ways.
As they grow, children who have involved fathers are substantially less likely to be sexually involved at an early age, have children out of wedlock, or be involved in criminal or violent behavior. They are much more likely to stay in school, do well there, and go to college. They also show greater moral sensitivity and self-control.
On the other side of the spectrum, father absence in the lives of children can contribute too many negative effects and risks for children. According to recent census data, 24 million children are without fathers in their daily lives. The consequences of father absence are many including increases in child poverty rates, child runways, school suspensions and dropout rates, juvenile delinquency and gang membership, incarceration, and early pregnancy among teenagers.
Economic, cultural, and policy changes have devalued fatherhood in the United States which has had a dramatic effect on the African American community and raises the question of whether or not Black Fathers are necessary. Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson and others have pointed out, basic structural changes in the U.S. economy has increasingly disadvantaged lower-skilled workers, thus undermining the marriageability of many young African American men. The chronic unemployment rate of black men has contributed to what some scholars call an “urban underclass.” Declining blue collar employment, dislocation of jobs to the suburbs and abroad, and the demand for higher levels of skill has caused a spatial mismatch between many black men job seekers and the current job market. As a result of these employment concerns a large number of couples are deciding to have children outside of marriage.
A number of today’s children are being born to unmarried parents. According to a recent data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics the percentage of first births to women living with a male partner jumped from 12 percent in 2002 to 22 percent in 2006-10 – an 83 percent increase. This data is even more dramatic when viewed along racial and ethnic lines. The government report also found that about 80 percent of first children born to black women were outside of marriage; 18 percent of these women were cohabiting (living with the child’s father). Among Hispanics, 53% of first children were born outside of marriage, and 30 percent of the women were cohabiting. Among white women, 34 percent of first children were born outside of marriage, 20 percent to cohabiters. Among Asians, 13% of first children were born outside of marriage; 7 percent of women were cohabiting.
A longitudinal study of low-income unmarried parents conducted by researchers at Princeton University more than a decade ago found many adverse consequences to children when their parents decide to have them outside of marriage including declines in father involvement. By age five, only 50% of non-resident fathers have seen their child in the past month. The Princeton study concludes that children born to unmarried parents are disadvantaged relative to children born to married parents in terms of parental capabilities and family stability. Additionally, parents the marital status at the time of a child’s birth is a good predictor of longer-term family stability and complexity, both of which influence children’s longer-term well-being.
The President and Congress has made fatherhood a public policy priority through legislation that provides funding to community based agencies for the design and implementation of programs that seek to increase the level of positive father involvement and engagement in the lives of children. These programs target unmarried and married fathers and those who have been incarcerated or a re-entering communities and families after incarceration.
Speakers and workshops offered at the 14th Annual International Fatherhood Conference will expose many of the aforementioned concerns regarding fatherhood and provide innovative and evidenced based solutions to increase father presence, involvement, and engagement.
Dr. Jeffery M. Johnson, PhD., is president and CEO of the National Partnership for Community Leadership.