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Father Absence Has Already Peaked

A Reply to David C. Geary's 'The Rise of Father Absence and Its Attendant Social Ills.'

· 5 min read
Father Absence Has Already Peaked
Photo by Vitolda Klein on Unsplash

David C. Geary (“The Rise of Father Absence and Its Attendant Social Ills,” March 7th, 2023) and I agree that the myriad changes in social and economic conditions over the past century have had profound consequences for families, but the story is more complex than he suggests. This starts with the reasons why family structure has changed so much over the past 75 years.

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.

We also agree about Steven Pinker’s conclusions in Enlightenment Now, which demonstrates that “technological, scientific, economic, public health, and social advances have eliminated or greatly reduced many of the threats that hounded our ancestors.” But Pinkerian modernity isn’t responsible, at least not directly, for the modern proliferation of single-parent families that began in the mid-1960s.

Presumably, Geary’s golden age of two-parent families took place in the 1950s. Indeed, that decade had the highest rate of two-parent families in recorded history. It was also an anomaly of a decade, uniquely shaped by the Great Depression and Second World War, and during that decade people enjoyed the higher standards of living described by Pinker. If greatly improved material conditions were sufficient grounds to ignite the dramatic growth of single-parent families, surely we would have seen it in 1950s America, by leaps and bounds the most prosperous epoch of human history to date.

Why did single parenthood increase so much after the 1950s? In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker himself hints at a better—if incomplete—explanation than Geary’s. As I explained in a recent history of the modern family, the 1960s were decivilizing (Pinker’s word) in a way that undermined many traditional institutions.

That’s not all bad news, as some of those institutions had worn out their welcome. In particular, the increase in single-parent families was closely related to the civil rights advances of the 1960s and 1970s. Equality had become a paramount social value, and this affected attitudes towards marriage. The divorce rate started rising in the 1960s because of expressive individualism: people, particularly women, felt a newfound freedom to be equal partners and happy in their marriages, and to be free from abusive or unfulfilling unions. This trend was kicked into overdrive by the economic shocks and the stagnation of men’s wages in the 1970s.

Today in the United States, about 30 percent of children don’t live with two parents. That’s a large percentage, but it reflects divorce rates that are at a 50-year low. And nonmarital fertility is 25 percent lower than its 2008 peak. The 2020 nonmarital birth rate was 25 percent lower than the peak in 2007 and 2008. These trends hardly portend higher rates of father absence, as Geary suggests. Indeed, the rate of two-parent families bottomed out around 2000 and has since rebounded.

The consequences have been decidedly mixed. Single-parent families multiplied after the 1960s, but over the same years, the amount of time fathers spent with their children increased almost fourfold (and despite working more outside the home, the time mothers spent with their children also increased). Fathers were newly inspired to parent and not just earn money and dole out spankings like in the old days.

Geary isn’t wrong that kids do best in happy two-parent families. My 2005 book Understanding the Divorce Cycle described some of the consequences of non-intact parentage, consequences confirmed by causal models. But Geary is wrong about why non-intact families are hard on children. It’s more than just the absence of a father. One way we know this is through the very well-established finding that the death of a parent has minimal negative effects on children compared to divorce or out-of-wedlock parentage. My 2005 book shows this; so, too, does the excellent work by the late Sara McLanahan that Geary cites.

We don’t even need to speculate, as Geary does, on the genetic component of the relationship between family structure and child wellbeing, as three different research teams have already done such research. Each used twin studies to show there’s a purely genetic component that helps explain why divorce is correlated with children’s negative outcomes.

Genetics, of course, is only part of the story, but we can’t tease out the social differences the way Geary recommends:

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.

The problem with this logic is that the time in a child’s life when a father leaves has too many correlates that may individually be consequential for a child’s wellbeing: 1) how old the child is at the time of divorce; 2) the amount of time a child spends in a single-parent family balanced against the time a child has had to get over the trauma of a divorce; 3) early departure by the father (or mother) potentially exposes the child to more family structure transitions such as remarriage and a second divorce. My work has shown that it’s the number of family structure transitions that matters most. Among others, sociologist Lawrence Wu found the same thing.

I do agree with Geary that people sometimes still idealize newer family forms that aren’t as good for kids as two-parent families, but this sentiment peaked in the 1970s. As I wrote last year,

The best picture winner at the 1980 Academy Awards was the divorce saga Kramer vs. Kramer, in which Meryl Streep’s character is praised for having the “courage” to leave her husband and abandon her child because she found the marriage unfulfilling. No one really says things like that anymore.

Nor is Geary’s example of shade thrown at the defenders of two-parent families especially convincing. The defender in question is University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, perpetually in hot water for discussing group differences in cognitive ability and saying things like America would be “better off with fewer Asians.” I submit that Wax’s preference for two-parent families isn’t the only reason she draws the ire she does. Surely there are defenders of traditional families out there who are less inflammatory.

Finally, I agree with Geary that the admonishments to “do better” beloved by American conservatives over the past few decades don’t do much. “Hectoring men to be better fathers is likely to fall flat,” writes Geary. Fair enough. So why does he think we can succeed in “nixing hostile, anti-male rhetoric like ‘toxic masculinity’”? I wish we could—Brookings’ Richard Reeves has recently made a powerful case for doing so—but, alas, people don’t listen to me, either.

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