“We know the statistics,” said President Barack Obama, “that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves.”
The Journal of Research on Adolescence found that even after controlling for varying levels of household income, kids in father-absent homes are more likely to end up in jail. And kids that never had a father in the house are the most likely to wind up behind bars.
Tupac Shakur, the rapper killed in an unsolved and possibly gang-related murder, once said: “I know for a fact that had I had a father, I’d have some discipline. I’d have more confidence.” Tupac admitted he began running with gangs because he wanted structure and protection: “Your mother cannot calm you down the way a man can. Your mother can’t reassure you the way a man can. My mother couldn’t show me where my manhood was. You need a man to teach you how to be a man.”
Where have all the fathers gone?
When I was a child, my father and mother often complained about “people going on the county,” a term they used for the rare young mother in our neighborhood who relied on government welfare. My parents, who often disagreed politically, saw eye-to-eye in their opposition to what they called wrongheaded incentives that encourage people to have children without marriage. “The worst thing that ever came down the pike,” Dad would often call “county money.”
In “Dear Father, Dear Son,” my latest book, I write about my rough, tough World War II Marine staff sergeant father, whose gruff exterior I mistook for lack of love. Born in the Jim Crow South of Athens, Ga., he was 14 at the start of the Great Depression.
He never knew his biological father. The man with the last name of “Elder” was one of his mother’s many boyfriends, only this one stayed in my dad’s life a little longer than the others. A physically abusive alcoholic, Elder would give my father’s mom money from his paycheck to ensure he would not blow it on booze and gambling. After a couple of days, Elder would get drunk and demand his money back. She would refuse. He would beat her and take the money back. My father witnessed this ugly scenario over and over. “Why she just didn’t give him the damn money,” Dad told me, “I’ll never understand.”
One day, my father, then 13, came home from school, and his mom’s then-boyfriend accused him of making too much noise. They quarreled. His mother, siding with the boyfriend, threw my father out of the house. He never returned.
Growing up, I watched my father work two full-time jobs as a janitor. He also cooked for a rich family on the weekends and somehow managed to go to night school to get his GED. When I was 10, my father opened a small restaurant that he ran until he retired in his mid-80s. “Hard work wins,” Dad would tell my brothers and me. “The world doesn’t owe you a living.” My parents drilled into us the importance of education and self-reliance. “Go out into the world unprepared,” Dad would say, “and you’re going to get your behind kicked and your feelings hurt.”
In 1960, 5 percent of America’s children entered the world without a mother and father married to each other. By 1980 it was 18 percent, and by 2000 it had risen to 33 percent. Today, the number is 41 percent. For blacks, out-of-wedlock births have gone from 25 percent in 1965 to 73 percent today. The ethnic group with the next-highest percent of births to unmarried mothers is that of Native Americans, at 66 percent. For whites, out-of-wedlock births stand at 29 percent. For Hispanics, out-of-wedlock births are at 53 percent.
In every state, a woman with two children “makes” more money on welfare than were she to take a minimum wage job. The array of federal and state programs amounts to over $60K spent for every poor household. But because of costs, the recipient household ends up getting far less.
How do we know that the welfare state creates disincentives that hurt the people we are trying to help? They tell us. In 1985, the Los Angeles Times asked whether poor women “often” have children to get additional benefits. Most of the non-poor respondents said no. When the same question was asked of the poor, however, 64 percent said yes.
People, of course, need help. A humane society does not ignore those who cannot or even will not fend for themselves. But good faith does not substitute for sound policy. The welfare state is an assault on families.