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The Difference a Father Makes

What we can learn from the Black Fathers Matter parade.
June 24, 2021
The Difference a Father Makes
Meagan Smith, 8 years old, carries the message from a sunroof as a motorcade to honor Black fathers on Father's Day starts at the Shaw memorial on its' way to Anacostia, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/ Washington Post / Getty)

There was a Father’s Day Parade in Washington, D.C. last week that warmed my family-obsessed heart. It was called the Black Fathers Matter motorcade and it featured silver and black balloons, a band serenading the crowd aboard a flatbed truck, kids singing their dads’ praises, community leaders, politicians, and at the end, a pop-up tent to provide COVID vaccines for those who needed them. Nine-year-old Zyah Brown read a poem she had composed for her father, Ron Brown:

My love for you is like the strongest bridges
I’d rather have you if offered all the riches
Greatest father ever, no competition
Daddy, listen, I spread my wings so you can watch me fly
I thank the Lord for angels in the sky.

Boy, do we need more celebrations like that! Black fathers—all fathers—need a helluva lot more appreciation because they are so crucial to children’s well-being, and they rarely get the recognition they deserve. A new survey adds bricks to the huge wall of evidence that dads are important to children’s welfare.

Though you might get the impression from certain quarters that no black kids come from intact families these days, that’s an exaggeration. According to the Census Bureau, 41.3 percent of African-American children are being raised by their biological moms and dads (37.9 married, 3.4 percent unmarried), 50.8 percent are living with a single parent (4.5 percent with fathers), and 8 percent live with a non-parent. For the population at large, a little over 70 percent of children live with their biological parents, 21 percent live with their mothers alone, 4.5 percent live with their fathers alone, and 4 percent live with someone other than a parent.

Let’s start with bread and butter. Kids who grow up with two parents are three and a half times less likely to live in poverty than those raised by single parents. Among African Americans, 13 percent of children in two-parent homes are poor compared with 46 percent of those living with their mothers alone. The figures for whites show similar ratios. Is it something about women that lands single-mom families in poverty? No. Single father families are also almost three times as likely to be poor as married couple families (though not as likely as single mothers).

Trying to work and raise kids on your own is just hard. It’s not the way any society was ever structured in the past—for good reason. Arguably, even our nuclear family unit has gone too far, in the sense that in too many cases it denies parents the help of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. But certainly the idea that one person can manage the demanding task of raising a little human, or more than one, while also holding down a job and shopping and commuting and on and on—well, it’s a form of lunacy. Yet we keep telling ourselves that no one family structure is better than any other. Rubbish.

You want more kids to go to college? Not that everyone needs a college degree, but here are the data: Among black kids raised by single moms, 15 percent get a college degree (mostly women). If dad is also in the home, 28 percent get the diploma. Overall, about one-in-three Americans gets a college degree, so intact African-American families are almost at that level.

You want fewer kids to get into trouble with the law? Among black kids raised by single moms, about 14 percent have ever been incarcerated. For those raised with two parents, only 8 percent have. As the Institute for Family Studies stresses, outcomes for African American children from two-parent homes are better across a range of measures than are those for white children raised by single moms.

From poverty to college graduation to incarceration, black children and young adults from two-parent families are more likely to be flourishing than their white peers from single-parent families. For instance, 36 percent of young black women from intact families have graduated from college compared to just 28 percent of young white women from single-parent families. Likewise, 14 percent of young black men from intact families have been incarcerated, compared to 18 percent of young white men from single-parent families. Moreover, 13 percent of black children in intact families are poor compared to 33 percent of white children in single-parent families.

There are hundreds of other ways that dads contribute to their kids’ well-being, some of which I documented in my 2018 book Sex Matters. Girls who grow up with their dads have lower rates of depression, are more assertive, and have fewer body image problems than those raised by single moms. Boys who grow up with their dads are more likely to be employed as adults, less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and less likely to act out at school.

So are fathers the panacea? No, why did you even ask? The legacies of slavery and Jim Crow still cast a shadow. Even among intact black families, the college attendance and graduation rates are well below those for white and other families. The black/white wealth gap remains large. In 2019, 30 percent of white households received an inheritance. The average worth was nearly $200,000. In that year, only 10 percent of black households received such a bounty, and the average value was $100,000. While 72 percent of white households report that they could get $3,000 from family or friends in an emergency, only 41 percent of black households said the same. And though children from single parent families suffer disadvantages regardless of race, the toll is much higher for African American kids. The odds of a white child completing college decline by 60 percent if he is raised in a single parent home, whereas the decline is only 40 percent for black kids. Or, look at it from the other side: Only 28 percent of black young adults from intact families have graduated from college compared to 47 percent of white young adults from intact families.

A few disclaimers: None of the data above disaggregated same-sex couple families, nor adopted children. They did not specify how many of the single-parent homes were the result of death, divorce, or non-marriage. My earlier research suggests that kids of non-marriage fare the worst, those whose parents divorced second worst, and those who lost a parent to death the best. It may seem counterintuitive, since children of non-marriage and divorce still have dads, but there are reasons. A dead parent can’t disappoint you by not showing up for the weekend, or undermine your relationship with your mother, or force you to adjust to his new wife. Not that all or even most divorced fathers behave this way, but a not insignificant number do (to say nothing of mothers who undermine their kids’ relationships with their ex-husbands and boyfriends). These psychological factors may, in part, account for the documented outcomes.

There isn’t enough data yet to judge how the children of same-sex couples fare compared with mother/father couples. But two is so very much better than one, that I would be surprised if the outcomes were starkly different.

All of this sociology cannot compete with a simple human story. One of the organizers of the Black Fathers Matter motorcade was 61-year-old Stuart Anderson. After thanking the crowd, he excused himself to talk with his granddaughters on the phone. “We’re playing the ‘I love you more’ game,” he explained to a reporter. “I love you more than all the trees. I love you more than all the leaves on the trees.”

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].