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Research proves that fatherhood really matters

Tallahassee Democrat, KNIGHT RIDDER TRIBUNE, By Roland C. Warren, April 20, 2002

The Bush administration is proposing spending $300 million in federal welfare dollars to promote healthy marriages - it is the most concrete example of the president's pledge to "help strengthen the institution of marriage and help parents rear their children in positive and healthy environments." The result has been a firestorm of pundit debate on 24-hour cable news channels and opinion pages across the country.

Clearly, the president has touched upon a national nerve. Why? Because he has struck deep into two core issues comprising what, as a society, we believe we are and how each of us views our place in this society.

First is the question of what living arrangements are best for raising kids. Second is the question of where private decisions end and public concerns begin is marriage, beyond stamping the marriage license, the business of government?

How we answer these questions will determine much of how we work to build American society over the coming decades. That is why the president's $300 million proposal deserves more serious debate than the rhetoric-laden volleys being lobbed back and forth by experts and advocates on television. What this question deserves is the hot light of cold, hard data.

At the National Fatherhood Initiative, we have done just that, as we released "Father Facts, 4th Edition," the most comprehensive collection and review of statistics and research on the extent and effects of father absence, and the presence of fathers, ever assembled.

We start with a fact that has reached national consensus: children, on average, achieve better outcomes when they have an involved, responsible, and committed father. Indeed, our analysis proves beyond a debatable doubt that children need good fathers. Children who live with their fathers are less likely to be poor; use drugs; experience educational, health, emotional and behavioral problems; be victims of child abuse; and engage in criminal behavior than those who live absent their biological fathers.

But if we go a step further, and ask the research and data to tell us what living arrangements make it most likely that a child will have an involved, responsible, and committed father, we get one answer: marriage.

All available evidence suggests marriage is the most effective pathway to good fatherhood. Research consistently documents that fathers who do not live with their children tend, over time, to become disconnected, both financially and psychologically, from their children. One study, for example, found that only 27 percent of children older than 4 years of age saw their non-resident fathers at least once a week in the last year, and 31 percent had no contact at all during the past year.

Another national study following 13,000 youth found that, while 57 percent of unwed fathers with children under 2 years old visited their children more than once a week, only 23 percent still had frequent contact with their children at age 7 years or older.

Research also makes clear that it's not enough for a man to simply live in the same home as his children, not, at least, if being a good father is the goal. In other words, cohabitation is not marriage. Three-quarters of children born to cohabiting parents, for example, will see their parents split up before they reach age 16, compared to about one-third of children born to married parents. And children living with their mother and cohabiting boyfriend suffer from more emotional and behavioral problems, and have poorer educational outcomes than children living with their married mother and father.

If we put hot-button emotional reactions aside, and use only the data as our guide, then we must conclude that the married mother and father household is the healthiest living arrangement, on average, for children. Stating so, and working to promote healthy marriages, in no way denigrates the countless single parents raising wonderful children - but it does state a truth, and gives us plenty of reason to want the government to support marriage, beyond just stamping the marriage license.

Roland C. Warren is president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, 101 Lake Forest Blvd, Suite 360, Gaithersburg, Md. 20877.