For some reason it seems impossible to talk about the impact of absent fathers on children without it being seen as an attack on lone mothers. This is odd because the issue is surely about the parent who isn’t there not the parent who is.
Then there’s the argument that any negative impact is down to the financial circumstances of the family, with the strong implication that money (from the state or an employer) can fill the gaps left behind by an absent father.
Writing for the Family Studies blog, Anna Sutherland attempts to disentangle the various contributory factors:
“Growing up without a father—whether that’s due to divorce, a nonmarital birth, or a father’s death—is associated with a host of negative effects. But given that children from low-income families, for instance, are more likely to live apart from their father in the first place, it can be hard to tell to what extent an absent father causes the problems that father absence is associated with, and to what extent other factors related to both family structure and child outcomes (like household income) are to blame.”
There are various techniques for teasing out the individual factors – “such as lagged dependent variable models, natural experiments, and individual fixed effects models” – and the studies to which they’re applied show that the absence of a father has a negative impact independently of the financial consequences.
For instance, educational outcomes are adversely affected:
“Although father absence did not seem to have consistent effects on children’s cognitive test scores, which are “more difficult to change than noncognitive skills and behaviors,” there is consistent evidence that father absence lowers children’s educational attainment and decreases the likelihood that they will graduate from high school. Workers without high school diplomas experience very high levels of unemployment and make less money than more educated workers, so failing to finish high school places young people at a major disadvantage in life.”
Other negative effects have been found in regard to mental health, delinquency and substance abuse:
“Four of six relevant analyses demonstrate ‘a negative effect of parental divorce on adult mental health,’ and 19 of 27 analyses on delinquency and negative ‘externalizing’ behaviors ‘found a significant positive effect of divorce or father absence on problem behavior for at least one comparison group.’ In addition, five of six studies on substance use suggest father absence affects their children’s likelihood of smoking cigarettes and using drugs and alcohol.”
The researchers who carried out the review “found few studies on how father absence affects children’s employment and income in adulthood” however the evidence that does exist is consistent in showing a negative impact on work life – as one would might expect for a group people less likely to have finished high school.
The overall conclusion was while fathers are indeed more likely to be absent at the bottom end of the income scale, fatherlessness adds a further layer of disadvantage:
“In short, while selection definitely plays a role in the association between family structure and child outcomes, father absence does have lasting, causal effects on children’s life outcomes.”
Given these facts, one might think that our politicians – most of whom grew up in comfort and with the involvement of their fathers – would want to engage with the issue.