Skip to content

The Rise of Father Absence and Its Attendant Social Ills

Fatherless children are at higher risk of delinquency that undermines their own prospects and disrupts the communities in which they reside.

· 13 min read
The Rise of Father Absence and Its Attendant Social Ills
Photo by Katherine Chase / Unsplash

Men’s investment in their children is one of the most remarkable features of the human family. Such investment might not seem unusual to readers with engaged fathers, and it might seem wanting in comparison to mothers’ investment, but it is an evolutionary riddle, nonetheless. This is because male parenting is uncommon in mammals, and doesn’t occur at all in our two closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos. Although the evolutionary history of men’s parenting lies beyond the scope of this essay, one aspect is relevant: men’s parenting is facultatively expressed. This means that men’s engagement with children is more sensitive than women’s engagement to the dynamics of the marital relationship and to broader social and economic conditions. The result is that social mores and broader conditions impact men’s engagement with children more than they impact women’s engagement, for better or worse.

The focus here is on secular declines in two-parent families in the United States and how children, adolescents, and society more broadly are impacted by the corresponding declines in men’s parenting. The issue is important because children who grow up without fathers are at higher risk of engaging in myriad delinquent and criminal behaviors that undermine their own long-term prospects in life, and disrupt the wellbeing of the communities in which they reside.

The figure below shows secular changes in family composition in the United States since 1960. Over the past several generations, the US has moved from about one in 10 children being raised outside of two-parent families to almost one in three. The two-parent families reported by the US Census Bureau belie changes in the composition of these families due to divorce and cohabitation without marriage. Eickmeyer has estimated that about 60 percent of US children were living with married biological parents, the best situation for most children.

Source: US Census Bureau, Decennial Census, 1960, and Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplements, 1968 to 2022.

Overall, 11 percent of US children were living in a father-absent household in 1960 as compared to 25 percent in 2020. This trend combined with population increases means that there were 11,000,000 more children and adolescents living in father-absent homes in 2020 than in 1960 (18.3 million vs. 7.1 million; see Table 1). This 2.6-fold increase in the absolute number of children and adolescents without paternal guidance has the potential to be socially disruptive, with increases in alcohol and drug abuse, criminal behavior, and poor educational and thus long-term economic outcomes.

Keeping children alive

In traditional contexts (e.g., hunter-gatherer, horticulturalist) and throughout much of human history, about one in two children died before reaching their 15th birthday. Men’s investment does not always reduce these risks, as others can compensate (e.g., maternal grandmother), but it does in many contexts.

A United Nations analysis of children’s wellbeing in developing nations found that “mortality of children is raised if the woman is not currently married, if she has married more than once or if she is in a polygamous union. … Overall, it appears that there is a strong, direct association between stable family relationships and low levels of child mortality.” For instance, Indonesian children of divorced parents have a 12 percent higher mortality rate than the children of monogamously married couples. The same relation was found in 11 of the 14 other developing nations surveyed.

The same pattern was evident in preindustrial Europe, where families living in urban areas were often separated from the kin networks that contribute to children’s wellbeing in traditional contexts. During the 19th and early 20th centuries in Sweden, infant mortality rates were one-and-a-half to three times higher for children born to unmarried mothers than for children born to married couples. The same was true in the Netherlands from 1885 to 1940. The direct importance of fathers was confirmed by the finding that the mortality of “illegitimate” children was lower if the father provided economic support to the child and mother and by the finding of higher mortality of “legitimate” children if the father died. A relation between fathers’ investment in the family and infant and child mortality risks has in fact been reported in many other European nations (e.g., Germany, Italy) and in China, Africa, and elsewhere.

I mention these patterns because the importance of fathers, especially during tough times, is often underappreciated in wealthy, highly developed and low-risk nations. Dowd, for instance, has argued that many people’s preference for traditional, two-parent families was the result of a patriarchal conspiracy:

The traditional context of fathering, typified by unequal caretaking and economic dominance, suggests that an implicit role for fathers as parents is teaching patriarchy. Defenders of the status quo may fear single-parent families because they fear that the lessons of patriarchy will not be taught in them.

A look at the actual evidence shows that fathers’ economic support gave mothers the option to increase investment in their children when risks were substantial. In 1900 France, for instance, seven percent of breastfed infants died as compared to 37 percent of bottle-fed infants; the latter were typically bottle-fed because their mothers worked.

These conditions would favor those with an evolved preference for traditional families. This preference would be expressed as cultural norms that in turn would create social pressures (e.g., through shaming) for compliance with them. These norms would limit the options of women (and men) who did not want children or who preferred work to homemaking, and no doubt was a source of frustration and resentment. This in turn helped to animate the feminist concept of the patriarchy. The norms were not, however, a patriarchal conspiracy, but emerged because they helped to keep children alive and helped to keep disruptive adolescent behavior in check (below).

As aptly documented by Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now, technological, scientific, economic, public-health, and social advances have eliminated or greatly reduced many of the threats our ancestors faced, and at the same time, weakened the social mores that kept some of these threats in check. Abouharb and Kimball’s analysis of infant mortality in the United States illustrates how dramatically and quickly life has changed. In 1850, about 22 percent of infants died before their first birthday, dropping to less than four percent by 1950, and well under one percent by 2000.

As the direst consequences of father absence melted away, so did the social pressures to form and maintain two-parent families. To be sure, stigmatization of mother-headed households remained for some time, as social norms are often slower to change than the conditions that fostered them. Dowd’s argument was one of many to push for destigmatizing these households, which is all well and good, but this has now morphed into a type of celebration of the benefits of such families, and disparagement of those who advocate for more traditional families. I’m not arguing that two-parent families are always the best option: Children are often better off in single-parent households if the two-parent household is riven by continuous, unresolvable conflict, or if the father is engaged in antisocial behavior (especially for boys).

The secular increase in father-absent households and the emerging celebration of their benefits has the potential to throw the daddy out with the bathwater. Although fathers’ contributions may no longer be the difference between which children live and die, there are other contributions that have the potential to be underappreciated or discounted in the push to celebrate single-parenthood, especially mother-headed households.

Keeping children and adolescents on track

Fathers who are engaged and competent have children who are more socially skilled, academically successful, and more likely to be socially mobile in adulthood than their father-absent peers. The interpretation of these correlations is not straightforward, however, because competent men tend to marry competent women. These competent mothers, along with genetics, play a role, but they are not the whole story. Among other things, fathers help to keep children from going off the rails, especially during adolescence. Engaged fathers have adolescents who are more likely to stay in school and stay out of trouble (e.g., criminal behavior, teenage pregnancy) than are father-absent adolescents, after taking other factors into account.

The first point is illustrated by Steele and colleagues’ study of the relation between father absence (due to divorce or death) and 200,000 Norwegian children’s years of schooling. Infant and child mortality is very low in Norway, and social support programs that buffer economic hardships make it an especially low-risk environment. Despite the low risks, loss of the father was associated with about a 10 percent reduction in the chances of finishing secondary schooling for boys and girls. Perhaps parental characteristics and the conflict that often precedes divorce contribute to these outcomes rather than father absence per se. However, fathers’ premature death also results in greater risk of adolescents dropping out of school, albeit the risks are lower than those found for father absence due to divorce.

In an informative twist on this type of study, Gähler and Palmtag assessed the relation between divorce and Swedish children’s educational outcomes for people born in 1892 through 1991, a timeframe with substantial drops in child mortality and increases in government welfare programs. Despite the reduction in risks, parental divorce (and typically father absence) was consistently associated with lower educational attainment for girls and boys throughout the 20th century, controlling other factors (e.g., marital conflict, parental education).

McLanahan and colleagues’ review of large-scale studies that controlled for alternative explanations (e.g., family income) for these types of findings yielded the same conclusion: “there is more consistent evidence of a causal effect of father absence on educational attainment, particularly for high school graduation.” They concluded that father absence is also associated with increased drug and alcohol use in adolescence and unsteady work histories in early adulthood.

One way to disentangle these effects from genetic ones is to examine the relation between father absence and child outcomes within the same family. If a father leaves when one of his children is 13 and another is two, the former experiences fewer years of father absence but at a potentially critical time of early adolescence. One such study found that children who experienced father absence in late childhood or early adolescence were at increased risk of delinquent behavior which “points to parental monitoring as the most plausible mechanism linking later father departure to adolescent behavior.”

A meta-analysis (a respected method for combining results across studies) of the relation between parental behavior and child outcomes converged on the same conclusion. “Poor parental monitoring was also relatively strongly linked to delinquency. The three indicators of parental monitoring, that is, parental knowledge of the child’s whereabouts, the active tracking and tracing of the child’s whereabouts by parents, and child disclosure, had links to delinquency.” Although relationships with both parents are important, a good relationship with dad is more protective against engagement in delinquent behaviors than is a good relationship with mom, especially for boys.

The long-term wellbeing of China’s “left-behind” children, who now number in the tens of millions, reinforces the point. These are children who have had one or both parents migrate from rural to urban areas for economic reasons. The first waves of these children are now adults and the men among them are showing higher rates of delinquent and criminal behavior than their peers from intact families. In a well-done combination of survey and experimental studies, Cameron and colleagues showed that men left behind (as children) by both parents or by father or mother (both parents contributed to this effect) had significantly increased odds of imprisonment relative to men whose parents migrated with their children in tow. Men who were left behind were also more likely to be imprisoned than their siblings who did not experience parental absence. The increase in criminal behavior, in turn, was related in part to poor educational outcomes and an increase in risk-taking behaviors.

It’s not just about keeping unruly behavior in check. Although the evidence is not as consistent as that for educational outcomes and delinquency (relative genetic and environmental influences are not as well understood), there is reason to believe that fathers can directly contribute to their children’s and adolescents’ social and emotional functioning. Dad’s involvement in play, especially rough-and-tumble play, is associated with children’s skill at regulating their emotional states (e.g., reducing impulsivity) and their later social competence. Several longitudinal studies, where the same children are followed through time, have found that this form of play is associated with better social and psychological functioning when these children reach adolescence. Rough-and-tumble play might also signal paternal dominance in a non-threatening way to young children, which then enables fathers to more effectively monitor and influence later adolescent behavior. This in turn may contribute to the reduced adolescent delinquency and higher educational attainment of adolescents with engaged fathers.

Bottom line and moving forward

All the effects described above are modest, once potential alternative explanations (e.g., genetic influences, family income) are considered, and so nothing can be said about any individual child or adolescent. So, some adolescents who grow up in father-absent homes do just fine and some who grow up with engaged fathers still go off the rails. Nevertheless, having a present and engaged father can be the difference between a downward or upward life trajectory for many other adolescents.

Even with modest effects on individual adolescents, these can translate into more substantive effects for wider communities. As an example, Hoeve and colleagues found that adolescents with supportive fathers were less likely to engage in delinquent behavior, but the correlation was modest. On a larger scale, however, this can translate into substantive effects. For example, if 60 out of 1,000 father-absent adolescents engage in serious criminal behavior, supportive and engaged fathers would reduce this to 38 out of 1,000 adolescents (all other things being equal). These effects are likely even larger if we combine multiple factors, such as the father’s monitoring of adolescent behavior along with a supportive relationship.

Circling back to the earlier figure, a 2.6-fold increase in the number of father-absent children and adolescents has broad social implications. Even if most of these children and adolescents do well over the long term, this is still an enormous increase in the absolute number of at-risk juveniles. Adolescents in these households, as noted, are at particular risk of dropping out of school and engaging in delinquent behavior that in turn increases risk of escalating into criminal behavior that continues into adulthood. The ill-advised COVID-related school closures likely exacerbated these risks because adolescents who are academically struggling are more likely to drop out when there are disruptions to schooling, compounding risks for those who are also father-absent.

Moreover, living in neighborhoods with many father-absent households appears to magnify these negative outcomes, in part by increasing the opportunities for delinquent adolescents to find and influence each other. These dynamics often result in escalation of delinquent and more serious criminal behavior to the detriment of their neighbors.

The number of children and adolescents who will spend at least part of their youth in father-absent households will likely increase. One reason for this is that more women than men are in higher education, due in part to the poor reading abilities of many adolescent boys. I suspect that widespread discussion of “toxic masculinity” (a Google search yields 4,000,000 hits), especially in educational settings, is creating another disincentive to attend college for many young men. To be sure, many adolescent boys and men do engage in toxic (harmful to others) behaviors, which is one of the main points of this essay. But the approach goes well beyond these individuals and seems to be focused on changing male-typical agentic behaviors (e.g., status striving) to make men more palatable to women from upper-middle-class backgrounds.

Whatever the reasons, the relative decline in men’s college attendance and graduation could disrupt family formation. First, the imbalanced sex ratio (three women for every two men) is typically associated with men delaying commitment to marriage and fatherhood or not being willing to make these commitments at all; in this case, college-educated men who have the most to offer children. Second, women prefer to marry higher-status men (hypergamy) and thus the relative decline in men’s college attendance results in not enough eligible bachelors to go around; even when women marry men who are less educated than they are, these men tend to earn as much or more than the women.

The latter is linked to a more important trend—the broader disengagement of young men from the labor market. As noted by Binder and Bound:

[T]he labor-force participation rate of prime-age American men has decreased in a near-continuous fashion from 97.2 percent in 1960 to 88.2 percent in 2015—a cumulative decline of 9 percentage points … [resulting in] a cumulative loss of 5.53 million men from the prime-age workforce.

The change is concentrated in men who are high school graduates (no college) or dropouts. Many of these men will return to (or cycle in and out of) the labor market. Even so, they are less likely to marry (or be marriable). In 1970, 83 percent of white and 70 percent of black 30-year-old high-school graduates were married, but this dropped to 38 percent and 17 percent, respectively, by 2015; 25 percent and 41 percent, respectively, were living with their parents in 2015.

In short, the pool of men who can contribute to a family and become engaged fathers has shrunk dramatically, as Charles Murray anticipated in his 2013 book, Coming Apart. This portends further increases in father-absent households and the attendant risks to children, adolescents, and wider communities. These include, as noted, lower educational attainment, higher drug and alcohol abuse, and delinquent and criminal behavior, all of which could exacerbate the declines in labor-market and marriage-market participation by young men. The trajectory is a cross-generational ratcheting up of father-absent households and the attendant social ills.

There are no easy fixes to this issue. Hectoring men to be better fathers is unlikely to work, as many men are already good fathers and those who aren’t are probably not receptive to hectoring or are not good husband prospects and thus can be more of a drag than a help in raising a family. Long-term fixes will need to include fostering the educational engagement of boys and men to enhance their economic and marriage prospects. This will require, at the very least, improving the reading competencies of lower-achieving boys (the reading gap is largest among the lowest achievers), increasing opportunities for training in things-oriented trades (which is appealing to many adolescent boys), and nixing hostile, anti-male rhetoric like “toxic masculinity.”

There are, of course, other factors that influence the expression of the social ills associated with father absence, including consequences for delinquent and criminal behaviors through effective policing (e.g., hot-spot, community policing). Broader social influences, such as engagement with religious leaders in the community and engagement in religious activities can also be helpful for some adolescents. Each of these factors typically has small to moderate effects but their combination is likely to positively affect the wellbeing of large numbers of at-risk children and adolescents and result in improvements in the quality of life in the communities in which they reside.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette