With a punch to his father’s face, the character George Lopez (played by George Lopez on The George Lopez Show) expressed decades of anger and pain. In the funniest way possible, the “Long Time No See” episode of the early 2000s show spoke to the realities of many absent fathers and their children. Seemingly unaware of his now-grown son’s pain, Manny Lopez (the father) offers an explanation for why he disappeared when George was just two years old: he didn’t think his son needed him and just didn’t get along with George’s mother.
Much has changed in the nearly 15 years since The George Lopez Show premiered. For one, Lopez has created three more television shows bearing his name, two of which didn't last. Many of the young people who watched his original show now have children of their own. Lopez’s comedic commentary became one small part of a much larger national conversation that has continued to grow over the last couple decades. And, perhaps relatedly, available data suggest that fewer children are sharing in the experience of having a completely absent father.
Earlier this year, the Census Bureau published biennial data collected from custodial parents. Mothers were asked whether their children had been in contact with the other parent at any point during the year. Among women living in poverty, those responding “no” reached an all-time low of 38 percent in the most recently surveyed year (2013). The data point for custodial mothers overall was 32 percent, reflecting a narrowing of what was once a 10-point gap between the two groups. These figures have fluctuated a little unevenly over the 20 years they have been measured, which may reflect (in part) the complications that go along with self-reported data, family relationships, and the blurring line between the poor and the near poor.
However, there is quite a gap between the 2013 figure and the 1997 high of 50 percent of poor mothers reporting no father-child contact. It is possible that a trend is developing toward low-income single fathers being more involved in their children’s lives.
Certain factors support this idea. Shifting cultural norms have made it more acceptable to think of men as caregivers. Declines in married-couple parenting have sparked a national conversation about the roles and responsibilities of single fathers in modern families. Fatherhood has also been a topic of interest (and policy intervention) for a bipartisan group of political leaders, including Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. And, despite limited resources, fatherhood programs and services have grown in reach and influence.
Shifting cultural norms have made it more acceptable to think of men as caregivers.
Pushing aside the set of circumstances that are likely supporting father-child relationships, there is one factor that is definitely not. Many parents don’t have connection agreements (joint custody or visitation) in place, including about one in three custodial mothers living in poverty, as of 2013.
Traditionally, parental visitation has been an issue for the nation’s courts. For married-couple families, who are increasingly likely to enjoy higher incomes and educational attainment than unmarried families, the legal system still works. It has even been modernized to better serve their needs, as described by June Carbone and Naomi Cahn in their recent book Marriage Markets.
For never-married couples who are more likely to have low incomes, the status quo is much different. Limited incomes prevent families from hiring attorneys, limited educational backgrounds make it more difficult to navigate complicated processes without professional assistance, and a general weariness of systems may make them reluctant to enter another one. There is a long policy road ahead in figuring out how best to serve their needs.
In the meantime, many parental disputes about visitation, custody, and other issues will remain unaddressed. At times, the ultimate results will mirror those of the fictional Manny Lopez, who walked away from George due to a bad relationship with George’s mother. Indeed, men in an ongoing government-sponsored evaluation of fatherhood programs cited contentious relationships with the mothers of their children as the most common barrier to being involved with their children.
Some relationships would benefit from interventions similar to those used by families with greater economic resources: parenting time arrangements created by judges or through mediated agreements, plus other co-parenting supports. Other relationships are beyond help and may even endanger women and children; these require different types of interventions. Regular, consistent, and large-scale data collection focused on such issues as frequency of father-child contact and relationship quality is lacking, but it would help those seeking to support the needs of America’s families.
Unfortunately none of these challenges can be resolved within the 30-minute timeframe of a network sitcom. But when policymakers and others continue to innovate and increase access to helpful family services, they help to defy the logic of the fictional Manny Lopez. They communicate a societal belief that fathers like him do matter to their children, that low-income men (and their families) do matter, period.