By Rob Okun
Millions of men will wake up Sunday to handmade cards, neckties, and, maybe, a new electronic gadget. It’s Father’s Day 2016, a time to acknowledge dear old Dad. But beyond this increasingly commercialized day of purchasing manly presents lies a deeper, more important question: where is fatherhood in the U.S. going today?
Answers can be found in the “State of America’s Fathers,” a new report advocating increasing both the visibility and value of dads caring for children. Using never-before analyzed data and rolling out an ambitious set of policy recommendations, the report advocates a host of improved policies and programs for parents—particularly for the most vulnerable fathers and families. In addition, the report can influence policymakers to throw their support behind a fatherhood revolution, transforming how fathers are viewed in families.
Detailing and Advancing the “Fatherhood Revolution”
The State of America’s Fathers links increased support for fathers as caregivers to a comprehensive strategy to advance equality and social justice and to improve overall family well being. The report’s comprehensive approach begins with a focus on diversity and equality, offering a wide spectrum of ideas to achieve work-life balance.
Fathers in the United States are certainly more involved in their children’s lives than in previous generations; deepening their commitment to gender equality and healthy child development—as well as promoting economic strength nationally—will mean helping to insure a funded, effective fatherhood movement in the years ahead.
Some are calling what is happening a “fatherhood revolution.”
More fathers and father figures are doing—and are expected to do—more of the childcare and housework than in previous generations. Harnessed effectively, the report suggests that a movement of involved fathers “has the power to advance gender equality, improve childhood development outcomes, and raise the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) by several hundred billion dollars.” How? By championing women to work outside the home at the same rate as do men. Despite achievements to date, the report concludes that the U.S. is not doing enough to support or advance the movement—in part because until now there has never before been a clear or accurate national picture of the state of U.S. fatherhood.
The U.S. fatherhood report is an outgrowth of 2015’s first “State of the World’s Fathers” report coordinated by Promundo, an international organization advancing gender equality founded two decades ago in Brazil. In its newest initiative, Promundo was aided by a diverse coalition of partners to produce the State of America’s Fathers report. Its editorial board includes key researchers and influential non-governmental organizations working on engaging fathers in the U.S., with representatives from: Families and Work Institute; the Center for Research on Fathers, Children and Family Well-Being at Columbia University; the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University; the National Partnership for Women & Families; and the University of Maryland.
A Tale of Two Fathers
The U.S. report reveals that the fatherhood revolution is a highly unequal one. A tale of two fathers cuts across socioeconomic lines. At one end, society increasingly encourages upper middle- and upper-income fathers to be highly engaged with their children—with many Fortune 500 companies offering the paid parental leave to back this up. On the other end, low-income dads have the least access to paid leave in the country: Ninety-five percent of low-wage workers do not have the option of taking paid family leave through their employers’ policies for the birth of a child, or to care for a seriously ill family member. New data from the report reveals that one aspect which unites across lines is the inability for parents to find work-life balance: the majority of parents (59 percent) who work full time, and 74 percent of those who work overtime feel that they do not spend enough time with their children.
Compounding matters, consider the unprecedented size of the U.S. prison system. Prison plays an outsized role in the financial challenges low-income families face. At some point in their lives, the report points out, more than 11 percent of U.S. men will go to prison. Because of racial biases, among other factors, more than 60 percent of those in prison are people of color. All told, more than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have a parent incarcerated and more than 90 percent of incarcerated parents are fathers. As such, harsh sentencing laws (particularly for nonviolent offenses) are harmful for children, in addition to being racially unjust.
The State of America’s Fathers also found that today children in the U.S. are more likely than ever to live outside of traditional, two-parent, heterosexual households. Coupled with three other factors—the decline of marriage, increased cohabitation, and divorce no longer being as highly stigmatized—means that the “traditional” family is no longer in the majority. As many as half of all children in the U.S. now spend some portion of their childhood years living in single-parent households.
Positive Trends, but Lagging Policy Shifts
The report reveals that over the last three decades fathers in the U.S. have increased the time they spend with their children during the workday by nearly a third—to 65 percent. According to the report’s new data, both men and women are more interested in sharing childcare responsibilities than ever—and only a minority of men—less than half (40 percent) agree that “men should earn money and women should take care of the home and the family.” In addition, despite a pervasive stigma of nonresident fathers as absent fathers—or worse, “deadbeat dads”—research also shows that most nonresident fathers are consistently very active in the lives of their children.
The report concludes that both women and men will benefit from policies and efforts that encourage fathers to realize their roles as fully engaged, fully equal caregivers. Nevertheless, among high-income nations the U.S. is alone in guaranteeing no paid leave to new parents. In addition, 40 percent of workers are ineligible for the 12 weeks of unpaid leave offered under the Family and Medical Leave Act. And, even for those who are eligible, taking leave that is not paid is financially impossible. The report also says that extreme rates of incarceration and high child support demands on low-income fathers underscore a need to reframe the conversation on economically marginalized nonresident fathers’ contributions to their children’s lives.
Advancing the Goals
The State of America’s Fathers outlines key recommendations for action. These include:
1. The need for national legislation to provide for paid, equal, and non-transferable leave for mothers and fathers of newborns: noting that even as much as 12 or 16 weeks—can generally be paid for by both mothers and fathers through a payroll tax of about one percent.
2. It calls for the U.S. government to provide the poorest fathers and families with a living wage, to reform the justice system, and to provide additional services that encourage and support their caregiving—including an Earned Income Tax Credit for nonresidential fathers who pay child support.
3. It posits that joint physical custody of children after a relationship or marital breakdown should be pursued when it is in the best interest of the child, and in cases where there is no history or threat of violence.
4. It notes that building on a foundation of reproductive justice, supportive programs and services, which include comprehensive sexuality education and quality reproductive health services, can support individuals to plan when and how they want to have children.
5. It calls for workplaces to value what parents do as caregivers as much as they value their professional achievements; for more men to join the HEAL professions (health, education, administration, and literacy); and for children to learn the value of caregiving from young ages in order to help accelerate social shifts toward greater acceptance and valuing of caregiving qualities in all genders.
“What our report and our new data show is this: women and men want the policies and the support so that all parents can be full-on, fully engaged, fully equal caregivers, said Gary Barker, International Director and founder of Promundo. “…Implementing paid leave is far less costly than often thought; and when implemented alongside income support to low-income fathers and parents, these policies pay for themselves in increased productivity and happier, healthier families. What are we waiting for?”Φ