The High Cost of Fatherlessness: To All of Us

The numbers are staggering: 24 million children live without their biological father in the home.; 24 million children – that's one out of every three children in the U.S.

As huge as that number is, it doesn't tell the whole story about father absence. Due to separation and divorce, many of the children who lived with their fathers when these U.S. Census Bureau numbers came out, no longer do so. A recent report, "The Fifth Annual Index of Family Belonging and Rejection," explains that for older teens, ages 15-17, only 46 percent of those teens will have grown up with both their biological parents always married.; see also:

The report continues: "The biological parents of the other 54 percent are either no longer married or never did marry." In the 1950s, the majority of children grew up with their married parents. Now, however, the majority grow up with no parent, a single parent, cohabiting parents or remarried parents – or some shifting combination of these over the years. We've created a new norm of family instability, impermanence and fatherlessness. Marriage and family expert Patrick Fagan describes the shift this way, "The breakdown in marriage over the last 50 years carries a cost: America has evolved from being a culture of belonging to being a culture of rejection, and its children are paying the price.Patrick F. Fagan, Ph.D., "Changing a 'Culture of Rejection,'" 2004,

As overwhelming as these numbers are, they only show the incidence of fatherlessness. If we dig deeper, we learn more about the costThe personal cost, to the child, is also great, and the next article in this series examines this aspect of fatherlessness. – to all of us – of children who grow up without their fathers.

The Cost to Taxpayers

In 2008, two different groups looked at the cost to taxpayers of father absence. In a report titled, "The Hundred Billion Dollar Man," the National Fatherhood Initiative looked at 13 different programs and found that the federal government spent at least $99.8 billion assisting father-absent families. One hundred billion dollars a year.Steven L. Nock and Christopher J. Einolf, "The One Hundred Billion Dollar Man: The Annual Public Costs of Father Absence," National Fatherhood Initiative, 2008,

That same year, a different group of researchers produced a report: "The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing." Coming at the issue from a slightly different angle, and using different parameters, they estimated that "family fragmentation costs U.S. taxpayers at least $112 billion each and every year, or more than $1 trillion each decade."Estimates for the Nation and All Fifty States." (New York: Institute for American Values, 2008) p. 5 (italics in the original). .

We all pay the cost for fatherlessness.

Other Significant Societal Costs

Fatherlessness is related to poor outcomes for children in many areas, and these outcomes affect all of us. Here are just a few of the other problems created by fatherlessness:

  • Drug and alcohol abuse: Fatherless children are more prone to substance abuse.
    The National Center for Fathering says that fatherless children are "10 times more likely to abuse chemical substances." They also state that "71% of adolescent substance abusers come from a fatherless home."
  • Crime: Fatherless children are more likely to behave violently and more likely to be incarcerated.
    In his book Fatherless America, David Blankenhorn writes, "[T]he weight of evidence increasingly supports the conclusion that fatherlessness is a primary generator of violence among young men." He continues, "Put simply, we have too many boys with guns primarily because we have too few fathers."David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem (New York: HarperPerennial, 1996) p. 31; see also: "Effects of Family Structure on Crime," Marripedia,[]=crime.
  • Education: Fatherless children have lower academic achievement and are less likely to graduate from high school.;
    Researchers reviewed studies on father absence, and found that father absence does not necessarily affect children's cognitive abilities, but still found "strong and consistent negative effects of father absence on high school graduation." They write, "The latter finding suggests that the effects on educational attainment operate by increasing problem behaviors rather than by impairing cognitive ability."Sara McLanahan, Laura Tach and Daniel Schneider, "The Causal Effects of Father Absence," Annual Review of Sociology, July 2013, pp. 399-427,
  • Poverty: Fatherless children are more likely to live in poverty.
    The Heritage Foundation reports:
    Child poverty is an ongoing national concern, but few are aware of its principal cause: the absence of married fathers in the home. According to the U.S. Census, the poverty rate for single parents with children in the United States in 2009 was 37.1 percent. The rate for married couples with children was 6.8 percent.

Of course we don't believe that children without fathers are destined to lives of poverty, drug abuse and crime. We've seen many examples of men and women who have risen above their broken upbringing. In addition, there are many single and divorced parents who work successfully to overcome obstacles and raise healthy children.

At the same time, Christians can't ignore changes in the family that have damaging consequences. Here's what Patrick Fagan says about this:
Still, if, in a well-intentioned effort to spare the feelings of those around us, we ignore these trends, we do so at our peril. The data show that when fathers and mothers belong to each other in marriage, their children thrive -- and the more they belong to each other, the better off their children are. But when parents are indifferent or walk away from each or reject each other, their children don't thrive as much -- and many wilt a lot.Patrick F. Fagan, op. cit.

What Can I Do?

It would be easy to look at the increase in fatherlessness and its effects on our world and throw up our hands in despair. Rather than being overwhelmed and doing nothing, we encourage you to do something. God has a heart for the fatherless, and we believe he moves to heal and help them. He can bless our small efforts beyond our imagining. Here are a few simple ideas:

For more on this topic: