Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Health of Fatherhood

The Health of Fatherhood


On the one hand, we have a vast empirical research literature showing that both children and fathers benefit on almost all conceivable outcome indices when they are involved in each others lives as the children are growing up and being guided by their fathers into adulthood and beyond.

On the other hand, we have the following widely accepted contemporary demographics: one third of children are born to women who are not married at the time of delivery (and presumably do not have a father involved in the child’s life on a continual basis); 50% of first marriages end in divorce and another 17% end in permanent separation yielding an effective two thirds marital dissolution rate for first marriages; the divorce rate for second and subsequent marriages is about 10% higher; and the cookie-cutter formula used by most states grants physical custody to mothers about 85% of the time with the father being awarded infrequent visitation along with child support and alimony obligations.

Second, a minimum of two out of three divorces are initiated by wives. In my view, this is because mothers get all of the marbles in divorce. Specifically, and with some state to state variability, mothers not only get the children (about 85% of the time) but they also get half of the marital assets (sometimes mostly the father’s assets) plus the father’s income to support her and the children often in the former marital home along with the tax benefits associated with the children. By contrast, the father gets to pay for and furnish an apartment and, if lucky, is awarded alternate weekends with his children, perhaps an evening in between, and perhaps half a summer and other holidays. Critically, when the children are with the father he must feed, shelter, clothe, and entertain them with whatever he has left over after he continues to pay child-support and alimony to his ex-wife.

Clearly, all the current legislative incentives to divorce belong to the mother and none to the father. The solution to increasing father-child relationships post-divorce -- and as a critical fringe benefit to reduce the divorce rate as the incentives to divorce disappear -- is to change existing state family law on three fronts: (a) Establish a presumption of equal shared parenting; and (b) establish equal financial responsibility for both mothers and fathers along with legally mandated financial accountability for both; and (c) change the child support models from income sharing models to child cost sharing models.

In closing, the bad news is that the health of fatherhood in 2006 is grim. The good news is that we got where we are today not through natural disasters but through woman-made disasters -- which can be reversed. Thus, we have the opportunity this Fathers Day, as we have every Fathers Day, to enhance the quality of life of America’s children and fathers through new political initiatives and public policy. However, we must act quickly, lest Fathers become yet another member of an exponentially expanding Endangered Species List.

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