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  • In terms of policy, we should adopt a fatherhood-first lens, rather than a marriage-first lens, argues Richard Reeves. Tweet This
  • Becoming a divorced man can never be an excuse for being a deadbeat dad.  Tweet This
  • Even if we could promote marriage through policy, it doesn’t seem to work very well. But we can promote fatherhood.  Tweet This
Category: Fathers

Editor's Note: The following essay (the first in a two-part series) is an edited transcript of Richard Reeves’ opening remarks at “A Debate on Fatherhood" hosted by the National Marriage Project at UVA and the American Enterprise Institute on April 25, 2023. The event, which was moderated by IFS senior fellow Brad Wilcox, featured a discussion between Reeves and AEI senior fellow Ian Rowe on the question: “Does strengthening fatherhood depend upon renewing marriage in America?” We will publish Ian Rowe's response tomorrow, and the full, unedited transcript of the event can be downloaded here.

John Stuart Mill, the 19th century liberal philosopher (I’m his biographer), had a beautiful description of how you should think about a debate when you’re disagreeing with somebody. He said, you should think of the opponent in your debate as someone that’s “trying to climb the same mountain as you, they’re just choosing a different route.” 

I know that Ian and I absolutely share a commitment to the flourishing of children, of men, and of women. So, everything that we disagree about and what follows has to be seen in the light of that—in other words it is, I think, a substantive and constructive disagreement. 

I’m going to set out my case for fatherhood. I’m also going to suggest that fatherhood and motherhood are the anchor of marriage, rather than the other way round. 

I believe that fathers have a moral obligation to be the best fathers that they can be. The evidence that fathers matter to the outcomes for children is now incontrovertible in a way that was less true as recently as 10 or 15 years ago. As Harvard family scholars Marc Grau Grau and Hannah Riley Bowles write: “The importance of engaged fatherhood is now undisputable in ways it was not in earlier decades.” 

My key argument here is that responsible and engaged fatherhood matters for all fathers: married or not, living with the mother or not. And that therefore, fatherhood, as a social institution, and as a normative structure, should be treated as independent of marriage. Fatherhood matters, period, even if it’s not part of the traditional “package deal,” whereby being a good father and being a good husband were essentially indistinguishable.

In terms of policy, this means we should adopt a fatherhood-first lens, rather than a marriage-first lens. 

Given the inescapably personal nature of this debate, it’s important to be honest about my own position, autobiographically. I have three sons. My first son is from my first marriage, and my second and third sons are from my second marriage. So I am not somebody who takes this issue lightly. I’m someone who has had to be a responsible and engaged father in the undoubtedly more difficult circumstances that follow the separation of parents. To say that it is harder is to state the obvious. 

But the reason why I think the independence of those two institutions—marriage and fatherhood—is so important is that the very basis for marriage has been fundamentally altered by the change in the economic relationships between men and women. In 1979, 13% of women earned more than the typical man. Today, 40% of women do. That is a huge change. Forty percent of children, and 70% of black children, are now born outside of marriage. Forty percent of breadwinners are women. In almost half of married couples (45%), the wife earns as much as or more than the husband. 

These are extraordinary changes in the economic relationship between men and women that have taken place in just a matter of decades. I applaud the economic rise of women. But we should be candid about the fact that it fundamentally alters the basis upon which men and women are forming families. 

The women’s movement succeeded in its primary aim, as set out by Gloria Steinem, Margaret Mead, and others, which was to make marriage a choice, and not an economic necessity for women—to break the chains of dependency between women and men. But what about the chains of dependency between parents and their children? They remain. In my view, they are sacrosanct, whether or not the mother and father are still together. 

So how, if we’ve successfully broken the chains of dependency between women and men, do we maintain the chains of dependency, not only between mothers and their children, but between fathers and their children, too? Right now, I think we’re in a very difficult transition phase where we have not updated our model of fatherhood to fit with this modern world. 

In areas of the Bronx where Ian Rowe does his excellent work with charter schools, the non-marital birth rate is much higher than that. In the census tract where Ian’s school is located, more than half the households with children have a single adult head. And in some of the census tracts around it, the number is above 70 percent. 

Most U.S. children will not spend their entire childhood with their married biological parents. So, I’m both describing the situation as I see it in real terms. But I’m also prescribing normatively, the importance of engaged responsible fatherhood, despite those changes. 

Becoming a divorced man can never be an excuse for being a deadbeat dad. 

Right now, the way this debate is framed is that there are still some on the left who have to be persuaded that dads do matter, independently. But on the other hand, on the right, there’s a recognition that while fathers matter, all too often, the impression is given that this is true only if they’re married. 

What does that mean for the tens of millions of fathers who are not married, or who were and are not anymore? What’s the message we’re sending to them? If we’re not careful, the message is: You failed. You’re benched. You don’t matter anymore. 

"Fatherhood, as a social institution, and as a normative structure, should be treated as independent of marriage."

That couldn’t be further from the truth. I also think there are things we can do—now here’s the policy wonk in me coming out—to support fatherhood, such as paid leave on an equal and independent basis for fathers; a much fairer child welfare system that treats fathers, especially unmarried fathers, much more fairly than the current system does, and so on. And I would add: better access for both women and men to effective forms of contraception. 

It’s important to get some facts on the ground here about what’s been driving the rise in non-marital births, because sometimes there’s an impression that back then, people were having their kids within marriage, in the sense that they were conceiving them in marriage. But that wasn’t always the case. Work by Scott Winship, senior fellow and the director of the Center on Opportunity and Social Mobility at AEI (back when he was at the Joint Economic Committee) shows that the single biggest factor explaining the rise in non-marital births was the decline in so-called shotgun marriages. 

Winship’s work for the JEC finds that in 1977, among women with a low level of education, 26% who became pregnant outside marriage would get married before the birth. Now it’s 2% for that group. That puts a sharp empirical point on what might otherwise be a theoretical conversation. What about that 24% percent-point difference? Do we think the world was better when women who got pregnant outside of marriage felt obliged by social norms to get married? Or do we think that the world is better where they don’t? And if you believe at all in revealed preference, the fact that only 2% of them are choosing to get married now must tell us something.

I think what it tells us, above all, is that the real problem here is very often unintended pregnancies. Half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned. And there’s an almost perfect kind of linear relationship in the form of the family. Only one in four pregnancies within marriages are ‘“unplanned.” And very often, what they mean by that is mistimed, came earlier or sometimes later, than perhaps was planned. For cohabiting couples, 50% of pregnancies are unintended. And for couples who don’t even live together at the time of conception, two thirds are unintended. 

If we share a belief in the importance of family stability and family planning, we can’t ignore the fact that there is a huge problem that’s caused by unintended pregnancy. And we can definitely do something about that in terms of policy, which is to make effective forms of contraception more widely available. 

So, there are things we can do to support fathers and mothers to be more stable, more engaged. By contrast, the evidence that marriage promotion policies work is almost nonexistent. The Bush administration tried a bunch of programs, and to their credit, they evaluated them pretty well. So we have really good research based on marriage promotion. You can pick a few that worked here and there. But the overall impression was pretty clearly summarized by my former colleague, Ron Haskins, at the Brookings Institution, in a piece for National Affairs, where he wrote: “There is little reason to be optimistic that programs providing marriage, education, and social services will significantly affect marriage rates.”

As he said, the evidence is decidedly thin on the effectiveness of marriage promotion. So even if we could promote marriage through policy, it doesn’t seem to work very well. 

But we can promote fatherhood. 

The last substantive point I’ll make is that, very often in this debate, the response from thoughtful conservatives will be, this isn’t a policy question, it’s a cultural question. And the problem with liberals like me is that we don’t preach what we practice, to use Charles Murray’s phrase. 

I see two problems with the “preach what you practice” invocation. First, people don’t need persuading. Most survey evidence says actually that marriage is still the ideal for most people, and especially for working class Americans. It’s not that people don’t think having kids within marriage is a good idea. It’s that for one reason or another, they’re finding it difficult to do so.

The second problem is that I don’t think the American working class right now is in a terrifically receptive mood for lectures from liberal elites about how they should be living their lives. That’s just my political sense of it. I don’t have empirical evidence, and I could be wrong, but I just don’t feel like it’s going to go down very well right now, given our current politics. 

I think that men can and should be both good husbands and good fathers. But I don’t think they have to be the former in order to be the latter. Insisting that only husbands can be good fathers, in my view, will not result in a mass reversal of these recent trends around marriage rates. It’s much more likely to send the harmful message to those who are not married, or who were married and are no longer, that they’re already failures.

Even if perfection is indeed loving, committed parents in marriages that last, we must be extremely careful in our public policy, and our public pronouncements, not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and in the process, inadvertently send the wrong signal to fathers. Which is: well, you’re not married, or you’re not married anymore, so, thank you and good night. 

Life is complicated. Life is messy. But the one unconditional moral obligation you have as a father is to your children. No matter how they came into the world, and no matter your relationship with the mother. Responsible and engaged fatherhood is unconditional. It’s not conditioned on the relationship with the mother. 

That’s the world we live in, and I think we had better make the best of it. 

Richard V. Reeves is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It (Brookings Institution Press, 2022).

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.