This article is written by Matthew Saxey, Erin Kramer Holmes, and Alan J. Hawkins and was originally published at the Institute for Family Studies. It is republished here with permission from the authors.
Nearly a quarter of U.S. children—17 million—live without a father in the household, most of those in single-mother homes. And more than 40% of children are born outside of marriage each year. As fathering researchers Paul Florsheim and David Moore summarize in their recent book, Lost and Found: Young Fathers in the Age of Unwed Parenthood, nonresidential, unmarried fathers are significantly less likely to stay involved with their children when a romantic relationship with the mother is dissolved—or fails to form. Arguably, the most significant change over the past five decades in children’s experiences growing up has been the loss of an involved father.
These demographics matter because children of unmarried parents are more likely to experience lower health and well-being outcomes—in part due to decreased father involvement, and researchers increasingly agree that father involvement matters for child development.
For decades, there have been concerted efforts at the national, state, and local levels to help disadvantaged fathers be better economic providers for their children through employment programs. But money is hardly the only way that fathers support their children’s healthy development—especially when disadvantaged fathers struggle to provide for their children due to high unemployment, low wages, and high incarceration rates. These fathers see an important role for themselves in direct childrearing and socialization, as sociologists Kathy Edin and Tim Nelson document in their important book, Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City. How are we, as a society, helping fathers do this?
The federal government has supported funding for “Responsible Fatherhood” programs over the past 15 years to the tune of nearly $1 billion. Community-based organizations have received grants totaling $50-$75 million a year for programs to help men be better fathers. These programs help men be more involved in their children’s lives and work more effectively and cooperatively with their children’s mother. Some also provide more traditional employment development services.
While practitioners have sought to help nonresidential fathers fulfill their desire to be good dads, researchers have worked alongside them to evaluate the effectiveness of these fatherhood programs. A recent study published in Family Relations examined the effectiveness of fatherhood programs for low-income, unmarried, nonresident fathers. Researchers performed a comprehensive meta-analysis of 30 quantitative studies, as well as a companion meta-synthesis of 47 additional studies to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs with a more fine-grained, qualitative lens.
Qualitatively, researchers are finding the potential for personal impacts from these programs. Fathers reported increased knowledge, skills, and confidence in their abilities to interact in positive ways with their children. One study participant said the fatherhood program he attended was “the perfect opportunity to learn more about how you can develop a better relationship with your child.” Another learned that “you ain’t got to scream and holler at your kids,” there are other strategies to effectively guide them.
Another qualitative study found these programs strengthen a father’s identity by combatting the stereotype of “deadbeat dads.” As one dad explained,
It’s great to finally have a program that’s nurturing to fathers. You got a lot of programs that’s nurturing to mothers. Nothing wrong with it, but in [this community] . . . there’s not really too many programs that cater to fathers.
Quantitatively, although these programs have made statistically significant impacts on father involvement, men’s positive parenting, and co-parenting behavior, the effects have been small—like so many other social programs—and leave room for improvement. Moreover, the meta-analysis and meta-synthesis reported mixed findings regarding the impact on nonresidential father employment, economic prospects, and child support payments.
Quantitative results did not find statistically significant improvements in economic and employment prospects, while qualitative reports offered more nuance. For example, qualitative reports revealed that fathers increased their skills at applying for and keeping a job, acquired greater knowledge about the child support system, and benefitted from program staff’s advocacy for navigating the legal system. Satisfaction with the program and their newly acquired skills, however, did not necessarily increase fathers’ actual child support payments or reduce their arrears balances.
This fall, the federal government will allocate more funds for five-year grants to community organizations dedicated to helping disadvantaged men become strong, involved fathers, even when they do not reside with their children. Results of the meta-analysis and meta-synthesis suggest these grants are critical because they support rigorous evaluation efforts that can increase the impact of these programs. Recommended directions for future research include the need for continued statistical reporting complemented by qualitative reports, assessment of child outcomes—not just father outcomes—and evaluations that follow fathers after completing the intervention to examine whether program effects deteriorate or grow over time.
Matthew Saxey is an undergraduate student in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University whose research interests primarily include how sexuality, empathy, and finances can impact couple relationships. Erin Kramer Holmes is an associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Alan Hawkins is a professor and director of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.
Holmes, E. K., Thomas, C., Egginton, B., Leiter, V., and Hawkins, A. (in press). The effectiveness of responsible fatherhood programs targeting low-income and non-resident fathers: A qualitative meta-synthesis. In J. Fagan, and J. Pearson (Eds.), New Research on Programs that Help Low-income Fathers Become Better Parents. Routledge.