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For too many, silence replaces 'Happy Father's Day'

021717gardner

Doug Gardner

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Friday, June 16, 2017

America's fathers are at war.

According to the Census Bureau, there are 12 million single-parent households in the United States, most of them missing a father. In September 1945, at the end of World War II, there were 12.2 million Americans, mostly men, in uniform overseas serving deployments averaging 16 months.

The difference 70-plus years ago is that those absent Americans were winding up an existential struggle for our country with Germany and Japan. Their families knew they were overseas fighting for them. Today, fatherlessness lasts for decades and too often is a lifestyle choice.

Census says that 24.7 million minor children live in such homes. Here in North Carolina, they comprise 36 percent of all households, with rates in our region ranging from a high of 49 percent in Chowan County to 28 percent in Currituck County.

There are two principal causes behind this trend: divorce and out of wedlock births. Aggregate divorce rates are actually in a long-term decline, driven mainly by a drop in divorce among college-educated couples who split at about 10 percentage points less than high school graduates. Those with a high school degree or less are divorcing at a much faster clip, about 39 percent of marriages, if they marry at all.

Out of wedlock births have skyrocketed from 5.3 percent of all births in 1960 to 40.6 percent in 2008, according to the National Center for Vital Statistics. This is an astounding 1.6 million children a year. Census shows similar numbers for never-married mothers: just 4.3 percent in 1960, but ten times higher in 2010 at 43.6 percent. Last summer’s update of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth found that 57 percent of parents 26 to 31 had children outside of a traditional marriage, with a concentration among those without a college degree.

Polling data from Gallup is in sync with these numbers, showing that 61 percent of surveyed Americans believe this is morally acceptable, up one-third in 15 years.

There are a host of practical problems that arise from these statistics. The U.S. Department of Education says that nearly two in five children enrolled in public school grades 1 to 12 have no father in the home. These kids do worse academically and drop out more often. As local school boards across the country struggle with a "black achievement gap," it is worth noting that 55 percent of black children, 31 percent of Hispanic and almost 21 percent of white children live in single-parent homes.

The absence of a father correlates with a higher likelihood of criminal behavior, too. The U.S. prison population has risen almost in lockstep with the trend toward fatherlessness. There were 2.3 million Americans locked up in 2012 and another 4.5 million on parole or probation. The prison/jail population more than quadrupled from 1972 to 2012, actually quintupling at its peak in 2007-08, according to the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics.

There is no shortage of ideas how to fix the problem of absent dads. Those favoring government solutions talk of requiring non-custodial parents to interact with their children. Issuance of driver’s licenses could be contingent upon this behavior. Income tax refunds might be intercepted on their way to absentee fathers, to send a message. Even George Bush spent $300 million of taxpayer money annually on a failed Healthy Marriage Initiative. Barack Obama turned the focus to fatherhood, to no avail.

Maybe we should look instead at fixing the cultural rot which debases the image of husbands and fathers.

Social expectations in the four decades post Roe vs. Wade have taught men to deny their role as fathers until they are given permission or a mandate.

Just for fun, parse the G-rated lyrics of “Cherish” by The Association (1966) and Billboard Magazine’s recent top two offerings, Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble.” You can’t print them in a family newspaper. Somewhere over the last 50 years, fatherhood got derailed. Getting the train back on the tracks will take more than legislation and money.

Doug Gardner is a resident of Elizabeth City.

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