Nicole Hawkins’ three daughters have matching glittery boots, but none has the same father. Each has uniquely colored ties in her hair, but none has a dad present in her life.
As another single mother on Sumner Road decked her row-house stoop with Christmas lights and a plastic Santa, Ms. Hawkins recalled that her middle child’s father has never spent a holiday or birthday with her. In her neighborhood in Southeast Washington, 1 in 10 children live with both parents, and 84 percent live with only their mother.
In every state, the portion of families where children have two parents, rather than one, has dropped significantly over the past decade. Even as the country added 160,000 families with children, the number of two-parent households decreased by 1.2 million. Fifteen million U.S. children, or 1 in 3, live without a father, and nearly 5 million live without a mother. In 1960, just 11 percent of American children lived in homes without fathers.
America is awash in poverty, crime, drugs and other problems, but more than perhaps anything else, it all comes down to this, said Vincent DiCaro, vice president of the National Fatherhood Initiative: Deal with absent fathers, and the rest follows.
People “look at a child in need, in poverty or failing in school, and ask, ‘What can we do to help?’ But what we do is ask, ‘Why does that child need help in the first place?’ And the answer is often it’s because [the child lacks] a responsible and involved father,” he said.
The spiral continues each year. Married couples with children have an average income of $80,000, compared with $24,000 for single mothers.
“We have one class that thinks marriage and fatherhood is important, and another which doesn’t, and it’s causing that gap, income inequality, to get wider,” Mr. DiCaro said.
The predilection among men to walk away from their babies is concentrated in the inner cities. In Baltimore, 38 percent of families have two parents, and in St. Louis the portion is 40 percent.
The near-total absence of male role models has ripped a hole the size of half the population in urban areas.
Tiny selfless deeds trickle in to fill that hole as the natural human desire for intimacy is fulfilled: One afternoon last week as a girl hoisted a half-eaten ice cream sandwich high over her pigtailed head, Larry McManus, the father of the girl’s sister, bent down to eat out of her hands as he picked up the girls from school.
“I know dads that say they ain’t their kids. I see dads being disrespectful of the mothers. And I see ones who take other men’s kids to football games because they know their fathers aren’t around,” said Mr. McManus, an ex-felon who said he is “trying to make a lot of changes right now.”
Asked his daughter’s age, he consults with her sister.
“Five. She’s in pre-K,” the girl answered.
“She’s 5,” he echoed. “Mmm, that was good,” he said gently of the ice cream sandwich. “Can I have another bite, please?”
Though income is the primary predictor, the lack of live-in fathers also is overwhelmingly a black problem, regardless of poverty status, census data show. Among blacks, nearly 5 million children, or 54 percent, live with only their mother. Twelve percent of black families below the poverty line have two parents present, compared with 41 percent of impoverished Hispanic families and 32 percent of poor white families.
The schism is most apparent in the District, which has a higher portion of two-parent families among whites, at 85 percent, and a lower share among blacks, at 25 percent, than any state.
In all but 11 states, most black children do not live with both parents. In every state, 7 in 10 white children do. In all states but Rhode Island and Massachusetts, most Hispanic children do. In Wisconsin, 77 percent of white children and 61 percent of Hispanics live with both parents, compared with more than 25 percent of black children.
“Something has to be done about it, and it starts with the culture and reversing the attitude that marriage is not important. The president has a role to play in that. He’s a married African-American father who can probably make a huge difference with words alone,” Mr. DiCaro said.
But the move toward single-parent homes has included every race, and from Curtis Bay in Baltimore to Millcreek outside Salt Lake City to Vancouver, Wash., just north of Portland, there are 1,500 neighborhoods with substantial white populations where most white households lack fathers. Maine, Vermont and West Virginia have the lowest dual-parenthood rates for whites.
The decline has hit disproportionately in the South, which considers itself a bastion of traditional family values.
Even in places where the percentage of the black population declined, single parenthood increased over the past decade, The Washington Times’ analysis of census data shows. In South Carolina, where the black share of the population fell by 2 percent, single parenthood rose by 5 percent. In Kentucky and Louisiana, where the black population was constant, single parenthood increased 6 percentage points.
“In places you’d think values are at least talked about, they are not lived out necessarily. Education and income seem to trump them. The people who might not be preaching family values, like coastal upper-class communities, those are the people who are waiting to get married,” Mr. DiCaro said.
The largest geographic area of sustained fatherlessness contains the rural, largely black poor across Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, tributaries of broken homes running 400 miles along the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn., where in some neighborhoods 82 percent of children live with their mothers alone, to Baton Rouge, La., in parts of which less than one-fifth of children have both parents at home.
Black families differ from other racial groups in that the average black single mother has more children, not fewer, than her counterpart with a father present. Hispanic single mothers were most often dealing with the most mouths to feed but still had fewer children than their married counterparts.
To have and to hold
Mr. DiCaro points to a desire among the poor to produce something.
“When you have very little going for you in your life, having children can give purpose to it. If you’re married, you’re going to be much more cautious. There’s health care costs and our jobs, whereas if we were both just kind of doing whatever, then why not just have another kid?”
Mr. McManus is quick to blame the absence of fathers to deaths or incarcerations, though women point out that many absent fathers live around the corner. Mr. McManus attributes that to the young age of many parents who are not ready to be “tied down.” He said women who need help with their children will seek the companionship of other men who they think can be father figures.
Ms. Hawkins, the mother of three, lives with her youngest child’s father but considers herself a single parent.
“When he’s home, he’s watching TV; it’s his time. I get no help. Financially, he’s been a good provider,” she said, even for the children who aren’t his. But “as far as being involved in activities, not so much.”
Her relationship with her eldest child’s father ended over his refusal to support their offspring, and her second child’s father is in prison.
“My oldest was raised by both parents, so it’s just selfish,” she said, but “my middle one, he wasn’t raised by either parent, so he doesn’t know how.”
“We need more fatherhood initiatives,” she said, pointing to government- and nonprofit-funded programs at churches, prisons and community centers, such as those offered by Mr. DiCaro’s group, “so they can see what they’re missing.”
Just then, her daughter Nadya picked up a tree branch and strummed it like a guitar, jumping up and down, all smiles. Ms. Hawkins reconsidered her thoughts on government programs.
“Though to me, that’s the initiative right there,” she said. “You can talk till you’re blue in the face about how to do it, but ultimately, you just have to do it.”