Opinion and Economy and Economic Analysis

HICKS: Absence of fathers has dire economic impact

June 18, 2011

Father’s Day provides a good excuse to abstain from yardwork, perhaps catch a few fish, and reflect a bit on the economic consequence of fathers. This might seem a tall order, so I begin by examining the counterfactual. A way to do this is to evaluate families with missing fathers.

When I was a boy in the 1960s, about 8 percent of children lived in households without a father. In 1960, about 250,000 kids had been left fatherless from World War II and the Korean War. The early death of fathers from disease and workplace accidents likewise accounted for many missing dads. Still, untimely death accounted for well under one in 20 of all fatherless households.

Today, more than a quarter of all children live in households without fathers present. War, disease and workplace accidents account for less than 1 percent of these. Divorce accounts for about 45 percent of households without dads, while more than a third of women with kids never married. The economic consequences of this are huge, and fall disproportionately on kids.

To begin the economics, it is important to acknowledge that not having a father at home is not the same thing as not having a father. We all know families who share custody and support, leaving their kids to thrive. My own grandfather succumbed to the effects of gassing in World War I, leaving four boys age 5 to 14—my dad the youngest. They flourished, thanks to a strong and loving mother and good neighbors.

That said, poverty in America is overwhelmingly caused by two things: failing to graduate from high school and single parenting. For women, these two often go together. The numbers are startling. By age 18, more than four of five children of single parents spend at least one year in poverty. Only about one in seven children of married couples spend time in poverty by age 18.

The data for persistent poverty is even starker. Poverty is a transient condition for families with married couples. Virtually all families in long-term poverty—five years or more—are led by single parents. The never-married crowd and especially teenage mothers dominate this group.

Poverty in America is not the result of an economic system. That would make it an easy fix. The problem is far deeper and neither political party offers anything thoughtful on the matter. My friends on the right offer a social agenda that does nothing to prevent unwed births or keep families together. My friends on the left offer a dose of more failed government policies. It is a largely wasted debate.

Fathers matter a great deal to the economic success of a family. That is a good lesson for the day, but fathers matter more in more important things as well. The probability that a teenager will become an unwed parent rises when there is not a father present to offer love and guidance on the subject. That is a good message to impart while fishing today.•

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Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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