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Poor dads: A “perfect storm” of adverse events works against young families

May 3, 2011

In the beginning of the 21st century economy, almost half of all children are being raised by at least one parent with a low educational background and a poor expected economic future.

At the same time, more than 40 percent of all births are out of wedlock, and the chances that an unmarried biological father and mother will have a child with different partners are at least 55 to 65 percent.

A new book explores these growing problems and possible policy remedies. “Young Disadvantaged Men: Fathers, Family, Poverty, and Policy,” a special issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, combines a researcher’s perspective with reality checks from the worlds of policymakers and social service practitioners.

University of Wisconsin–Madison economist Timothy Smeeding, a volume co-editor with Irwin Garfinkel and Ronald B. Mincy, calls the situation a “perfect storm of adverse events” that is affecting younger undereducated men, their children, and the mothers of their children.

Smeeding and his colleagues convened a national conference at the Institute for Research on Poverty at UW–Madison where economists, sociologists and public policy experts presented their latest work to describe the problem; provided cross-cutting commentary on culture, race, and family functioning and longer-term relationships; and examined child support policy, school-to-work transitions, dropout, incarceration and fatherhood-strengthening policies.

“Young Disadvantaged Men” presents the best thinking of national experts on the issues of immediate concern to those working through research, policy and practice to reconnect disconnected dads to their children and thereby improve child and family economic and emotional well-being, Smeeding says.

The numbers show that by age 30, between 68 and 75 percent of young men with a high school degree or less are fathers. Only 52 percent of all fathers under age 25, including 21 percent of African American fathers in that age group, are married at the birth of their first child. Older fathers are more likely to be married by age 30.

Sixty-five percent of all first-time fathers are married when their first child is born, but only 31 percent of all black men under 30 who are first-time fathers are married at the time of the first birth.

Adding to the challenge is data showing that few young fathers go on to education after high school — 29 percent of fathers age 30 and under compared to 41 percent of all men age 30 and under. Sixty-two percent of fathers with a high school degree or less earned less than $20,000 in 2002, suggesting that most young men with little education, low skills, and poor employment records have acquired family responsibilities that they will find difficult to meet, researchers said.