Statistics do not in themselves yield a three-dimensional portrait, but with its series of "Kids Count Data Books," the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation provides at least a yearly snapshot of America's families. The 1995 edition, published this week, continues to track some worrisome trends, such as the increasing rate at which unmarried teen-agers are having children, as well as clear improvements like the decline in infant mortality rates.
But amid the numbers and percentages, one fact stands out: Too many American children are growing up without a father. The percentage of the country's children living in mother-only families has quadrupled since 1950, to 24 percent in 1994. And because many of the children currently living in two-parent households are likely to experience divorce in the family, as many as half of today's children could spend some of their childhood in a single-parent home.
The rise in mother-only homes holds true for all racial groups and in every state and the District of Columbia, in suburban and rural areas as well as cities. It is true, though, that some neighborhoods are hit harder than others. The 1990 Census found that some 4.5 million children were growing up in neighborhoods where the majority of families with children had no father in the household.
When so many children not only lack fathers in their own homes but also have so few friends who live with fathers, it's hardly alarmism to say the state of fatherhood in this country needs serious attention. Certainly there are non-custodial fathers who make strenuous efforts to remain part of their children's lives, as well as grandfathers, uncles and other men who help to nurture children. Even so, it's fair to wonder how a boy can learn to be a good father when he has so little opportunity to see a man filling the role in day-to-day life.
But while it's easy to bemoan the breakdown of the nuclear family or to preach against lax attitudes toward marriage, it is also important to note the economic forces that are preventing many men from fulfilling one of the central traditional roles of fathers -- that of a significant breadwinner.
For men, there is a close link, missing among women, between income and marriage. Among men in their thirties, those earning more than $50,000 a year are almost twice as likely to be married as those earning less than $10,000 a year. Significantly, almost one-fifth of men in that age-group fall into the below-$10,000 category.
If fatherhood is to thrive, policy makers will need to worry at least as much about providing economic opportunity for young men as about finding ways to put welfare moms to work.