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America's Fathers and Public Policy: Report of a Workshop Introduction The importance of fathers in children's lives has received growing recognition in recent years. This emphasis has been prompted, in part, by the growing number of families without a father present. More than one million American babies, or 1 in 4, are born each year to unmarried mothers, most of whom are in households without fathers. Estimates are that 55 to 60 percent of all children in the United States will spend some of their childhood in a single-parent household (Hernandez, 1993); that parent is usually the mother. At any given time, about 22 percent of all children under age 18 are living with only one parent. In 1992, only 14 percent of children living in single-parent households lived with their fathers, while 86 percent lived with their mothers (Seltzer, 1993). Along with the rise in single-parent households has come a persistent rise in child poverty. In 1991, 21 percent of all children under 18 years of age were poor, an increase from 15 percent in 1970 (Bureau of the Census, 1993). Rates of poverty among young children are even higher: 24 percent of all children under 6 years are poor, as are 50 percent of African American and 40 percent of Hispanic children under 6 years (Bureau of the Census, 1993). Children can ill afford the absence of a wage-earning parent. As such, the importance of fathers' economic contribution to the family has never been clearer. For most children, two parents are better than one for more than just economic reasons. Fathers bring a dimension to child rearing that complements and, under the best of circumstances, supports mothers ' roles. For
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America's Fathers and Public Policy: Report of a Workshop example, research indicates that the manner in which fathers interact with their children differs from that of mothers and has an important role in children's social and emotional development (Parke, 1990). With more mothers in the work force than ever before, many fathers are assuming a share of routine child care responsibilities. Most describe the experience as extremely rewarding. Styles of fathering are as different as their roles. Some dads are indulgent, others strict; some are gentle, others rough. Some delight in sharing the daily chores of child rearing; others remain aloof from day-to-day care. And there is a significant and growing number of absent fathers who parent from a distance, if at all. Although there is great variety among men's fathering styles and involvement, public policy concerns generally center around fathers' economic contributions and responsibilities rather than other benefits fathers can bring to their children. Historically, the U.S. bias toward noninterference in family life except when society bears the costs of inattention has restricted the development of policies aimed at noneconomic aspects of family functioning. Yet policies aimed at economic aspects do have implications for the broad range of family functions. If family policies could be assessed in terms of both intended and unintended consequences for fathers' inclinations to remain involved with their children, it is possible that fathers could more often exert a positive influence on tomorrow's fathers and mothers. Mindful of the pressing needs of so many of the nation's children, the diversity of fathers, and the proliferation of research on fathers, the Board on Children and Families convened a workshop, “America's Fathers: Abiding and Emerging Roles in Family and Economic Support Policies,” held in Washington, D.C., on September 26-28, 1993. Participants were drawn from the research community, government agencies, and service providers (see page v). The main topics of discussion centered around child support, teenage fathers, fathers of disabled children, and inner-city poor fathers (see the Appendix for the workshop agenda). Participants framed their discussions to respond to the following objectives: to advance understanding of factors that facilitate or inhibit fathers ' participation in programs designed to provide support for families; to document and integrate what is known about the effects of family and economic support policies on fathers' involvement, or lack thereof, with their children; to identify mismatches between the knowledge base and assumptions embedded in both current and proposed public policies; and to frame questions for research to better inform family and economic support policies.
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America's Fathers and Public Policy: Report of a Workshop Because of the focus on policy-relevant topics, some aspects of fathering received little attention at the workshop. Although fathers may have a variety of parental functions—including setting limits, enforcing discipline, maintaining parental authority, teaching, acting as a role model, nurturing, and caretaking—most of these functions were discussed only in passing, if at all. Rather, the discussion centered primarily around the fathers in families that are under stress, for which the government is most likely to intervene: those who are poor, young, have a disabled child, or are absent because of divorce or for other reasons. This report reflects the workshop discussions, augmented by research findings that were either noted in the discussions or provided as background reading by participants. Programs that are described in the report are ones with which workshop participants were familiar. Program descriptions are provided for illustrative purposes only; no endorsement of any particular program should be inferred.
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