When Daddy Raises the Children

June 20, 1993

Father's Day won't likely find them at the ballpark or on the golf course, returning to a home-cooked meal with spouse and children. The growing number of single-parent families has changed that idealized vision.

There are 1.5 million single fathers with minor children in their home, "custodial fathers" as they are known in the government and legal systems that often ignore them.

Single-father families have been growing at a much faster rate than that of single-mother families, tripling since 1974. Nearly 14 percent of all single-parent families are headed by a father; a quarter of those men have never married.

Yet child-support policies and programs remain rooted in assumptions that mothers have sole custody of children. While society moves toward equal treatment of the sexes and shared parenting roles, family law courts cling to outdated views that do not reflect changing custody realities.

Daniel Meyer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who has studied this issue, finds widely held "myths" defy statistics and wrongly influence public policies. It's not true most single fathers are widowers (only 10 percent), usually remarry (less than half do), or seldom get custody of young or female children (30 percent of these fathers have pre-schoolers, 45 percent of the children living with single fathers are girls). "Child support issues are not irrelevant for custodial fathers, since there is a living absent parent for over 90 percent of father-only families," Dr. Meyer wrote recently.

Single fathers rarely get child-support awards from the courts. But when they do, in contrast to all the attention given "deadbeat dads," the absentee mothers are twice as likely not to pay up as are absentee fathers, Professor Meyer's study found.

Further, divorce courts continue to view men as fundamental breadwinners, he found. "Regardless of how little a noncustodial father earns, he may be expected to provide some minimal amount for the support of his children. Often the same is not required of low-income noncustodial mothers."

While single fathers do have notably higher incomes than single mothers, about one-fifth of those custodial males are still below the poverty level and nearly 40 percent would qualify for some welfare assistance, he wrote. Yet only 20 percent of single-father families receive any public assistance, compared with 45 percent of single mothers.

Employers also focus family programs on their female workers, although the new federal Family and Medical Leave Act does not discriminate by sex. That law should help to force a new look at other laws and policies that don't reflect today's diversity in child-custody arrangements.

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