A Mothers Day lament: Fathers matter

Late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., is seen on Capitol Hill in this July 2, 1994 file photo.
Late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., is seen on Capitol Hill in this July 2, 1994 file photo. AP

Mother’s Day, and according to Fortune Magazine, Americans will spend $1.2 billion to honor the heroines of our society. Yet when the flowers fade, the chocolate is consumed and the champagne no longer bubbles, for a growing number of mothers — especially those living in poverty and without a loving, responsible, engaged father at home — the consuming challenge continues.

In 1970 the percentage of American children living in single parent families was 10.3 percent, up from 8.5 percent in 1900. The national percentage is now estimated to be 25 percent. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the percentage of births to unmarried mothers is twice as high for African-Americans as for Caucasians, but across all groups, including Hispanic, the rate has increased dramatically over the last 50 years. Currently 17.5 million American children are fatherless.

Lawrence Stone, a noted Princeton family historian put it succinctly, “The scale of marital breakdowns in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent. There has been nothing like it for the last 2,000 years.”

These are not meaningless statistics. Indeed, study after study has demonstrated a direct cause-and-effect relationship between this decline of fatherhood and the growth of many problems that plague American society: crime and delinquency, teenage pregnancy, deteriorating education achievement, substance abuse and the growing number of women and children living in poverty.

In North Carolina, which ironically considers itself a bastion of traditional family values, 36 percent of our families do not have fathers present in their homes, 12th highest in the nation, and children living with single mothers are 20 times more likely to live below the poverty line.

Locally, according to the Durham Health Department, over the last several years, the number of births to unmarried mothers has been approaching 50%.


▪  Children raised by single parents are at a greater risk for drug and alcohol abuse, and boys are twice as likely to be arrested.

▪  85 percent of children with behavioral disorders don’t have a father at home, and girls who grow up without fathers are at a much greater risk to become pregnant as teens.

▪  Children who grow up without their fathers are twice as likely to repeat a grade or to be suspended. Elementary school children who showed violent behavior were 11 times more likely to not live with their fathers.

Perhaps the definitive analysis was done by researchers at Harvard and the University of California Berkeley. They studied 40 million U.S. children and their parents, using federal income tax records between 1996 and 2012. The focus was on economic intergenerational mobility, or one’s ability to “move up” in our society. Five areas were studied: income inequality, racial segregation, school quality, social capital, and family structure. Result: family structure and stability showed the strongest positive connection with upward mobility.

Over 50 years ago, a young assistant secretary of labor under President Johnson was asked to investigate the war on poverty and how best to address it. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report was: “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”

Moynihan noted the deep connections between black poverty and children being raised in households headed by unmarried mothers — at that time about 25 percent. The report demonstrated that black children growing up without fathers reduced their chances of climbing out of poverty and attaining educational and economic success.

The reaction was furious. He was called a racist and some feminists criticized the report for being “male-centric”. How dare a white man decry black women, they asked? Others demonized Moynihan, accusing him of “blaming the victim.” As a result, little was done for nearly 20 years.

During this period, the problem of fatherless homes grew worse, especially, too, among whites and later Latinos as their population grew. In 1976, Moynihan was elected to the U.S. Senate from New York where he pushed for initiatives and programs for the War on Poverty.

There is much more acceptance of Moynihan’s analysis now than when it appeared in 1965, but there are still those who simply do not want to address the issue.

In 2015, for example, the City of Durham spent months analyzing poverty in East Durham. Volunteers went door to door interviewing residents. But of the 70 questions asked, not one was related to family structure.

This community, this state and this nation need a wake-up call. I have perhaps an old-fashioned notion that we cannot solve a problem unless we first acknowledge and admit that we have one.

Most of us in the Durham community understand and believe “Black Lives Matter.” But to that, I would suggest we add the fundamental and vital concept that “Fathers Matter.”

Eugene A. Brown served 12 years as a member of the Durham City Council.