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The Dismal Place of the U.S. on Father Absence

Posted by Christopher A. Brown

How much do you know about the global epidemic of father absence? Do you know it's global? Do you think it's a problem exclusive to the U.S., developed countries, or Western cultures? If you're not sure how to answer these questions, you're not alone.

child trends world family map 2014

It's easy for us at National Fatherhood Initiative to be myopic at times when it comes to addressing the crisis of father absence. It's easy for us to lose sight of this global epidemic because we're focused on addressing it in the U.S. But the fact is our resources are used all over the world. Throughout our 20-year history, we've had people and organizations from across the globe who were considering or already had started a fatherhood initiative or program contact us via phone and e-mail and pick our brains. A few people have even traveled thousand of miles to visit us in person. Others have simply purchased our resources and programs for immediate use. Why? Because they recognized the epidemic of father absence at their own doorsteps and, like us, decided to do something about it.

Understanding our nation's place in addressing this global epidemic is vital because it raises the awareness of anyone interested in this issue about how bad our plight really is. That's why I'm so grateful to Child Trends for its development of The World Family Map, a report that monitors global changes in the areas of family structure, family socioeconomics, family processes, and family culture, focusing on 16 specific indicators selected by an expert group because of their known relationships to child outcomes in the research literature. Each annual report of the project provides the latest data on these indicators. Child Trends released the first edition of the map in 2013 and just released the 2nd edition this month. Most important to those of us in the U.S. is that it provides a snapshot of where our country stands on a range of child well-being issues compared to the rest of the world.

This edition of The World Family Map gathered data on the 16 indicators from 49 countries grouped into 8 regions: Asia, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania (Australia and New Zealand), North America (Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.), Central and South America, Western Europe, and Eastern Europe. There are several of the 16 indicators that are most relevant to father absence that include the proportion of children (under the age of 18) growing up with a single parent and the proportion of children born outside marriage, the key driver of father absence in the U.S. 

The important data related to father absence are:

  • Although two-parent families are becoming less common in many parts of the world, they still constitute a majority of families around the globe. Children are particularly likely to live in two-parent families in Asia and the Middle East, compared with other regions of the world. Children are more likely to live with one or no parent in the Americas, Europe, Oceania, and sub-Saharan Africa than in other regions.
  • Growing up with a single parent is especially common in sub-Saharan Africa, in Central and South America, and in several English-speaking Western countries; in the U.S., the U.K., New Zealand, and Canada, a fifth or more of children do so. Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe have the world’s lowest rates of single parenthood.
  • Extended families, which can compensate for the absence of one or both parents from the household, are most commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by Asia and Central and South America. Extended families (which include parent(s) and kin from outside the nuclear family) also appear to be common in Asia, the Middle East, Central/South America, and sub-Saharan Africa, but not other regions of the world.
  • While fertility rates are also declining worldwide, nonmarital childbearing is increasing in many regions, with the highest rates found in Central and South America and Western Europe. The highest rates of nonmarital childbearing are found in Central and South America and Western Europe, with moderate rates found in North America, Oceania, and Eastern Europe, varied rates found in sub-Saharan Africa, and the lowest rates found in Asia and the Middle East.

Because the report doesn't say anything specifically about the place of the U.S. on indicators related to father absence, I did some quick calculations. The data are not encouraging.

  • Among the 49 countries, the U.S. is tied with Colombia for the second highest rate of children growing up in single parent homes. Only South Africa has a higher rate. To put this in perspective, the U.S. trails not only every developed country (Western and Eastern) but nearly every developing one. 
  • Among the 17 countries in North America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and Oceania, the U.S. has the 8th highest rate of children born outside marriage. The U.S. has a higher rate than all but 2 of the 16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

There are cultural factors related to high rates of father absence an nonmarital childbearing. One of those factors is the cultural norms reflected in the attitudes people have about single parenthood and whether children need both a mother and father to thrive. (For a complete treatment of attitudes about fathers and fathering among fathers and mothers in the U.S., download our free reports Pop's Culture: A National Survey of Dads' Attitudes onFathering and Mama Says: A National Survey of Mothers' Attitudes on Fathering.) On those measures, the data are also not encouraging or surprising.

  • The U.S. has the 5th highest approval rate of voluntary single motherhood (i.e. approve of a woman who wants to have a child as a single parent and without a stable relationship with a man) among the 25 countries for which data are available. The U.S. trails only Spain, Chile, Argentina, France, and the Netherlands on this measure. 
  • The U.S. has the second lowest level of belief that children need both a mother and father "to grow up happily" among the 21 countries for which data are available. The U.S. trails only Sweeden on this measure.

The first characteristic of the 24/7 Dad is self-awareness. We should keep this critical characteristic in mind as we understand the dismal place of our country in ensuring that children grow up with an involved, responsible, committed father. An awareness of these data gives me even more reason to see our country turn the corner on this issue.

What impact has this post had on your view of father absence generally and in the U.S.?

Find fatherhood research detailing the problem of father absence in America on our father absence research page.

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