Louis W. Sullivan, the secretary of health and human services, sees fatherlessness as "the greatest family challenge of our era," and is urging that the issue be placed "front and center on our national agenda."
Speaking in New York before the inaugural meeting of the Council on Families in America, Sullivan detailed yesterday the economic, social and health problems that children suffer when raised without fathers.
His comments, observers said, reflected a consensus across the political spectrum that increasing divorce rates, out-of-wedlock births and step-families have weakened family relationships. Last year, for instance, the bipartisan National Commission on Children suggested that children fare best in families formed by marriage.
"Though our society is only beginning to recognize it, the greatest family issue of our era is fatherlessness -- male absence from family life," Sullivan said in prepared remarks. "I am here to put the issue of fatherless families front and center on our national agenda and to call for national action on what is surely the most important family challenge of the '90s."
The newly formed council is a group of 18 nationally known scholars and family experts whose goal is both to produce research on the American family and to make policy recommendations. About a third of American children are living apart from their natural fathers, either in single-parent homes or in stepfamilies, the council notes.
"Conservatives have long been concerned about single-parent families," said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who is not on the council and describes himself as a liberal academic whose own views have evolved.
"Over the past decade more and more liberals have come to see it's a problem, too," Cherlin said. "Conservatives are concerned about the passing of the traditional family. Liberals are concerned about thenumbers of children in poverty. Both groups are seeing that the father is important. You will see this in the campaign of 1992."
Some observers cautioned against giving the issue of fatherless families too much weight. To Sara McLanahan, a sociologist at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, the economic condition of children is at least as important.
". . . The costs of poverty are even greater than the family structure itself, but I would agree family structure is important," she said.