Commentary Magazine

Fatherless America, by David Blankenhorn

Where’s Dad?

Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem.
by David Blankenhorn.
Basic Books. 352 pp. $23.00.

With about half of all marriages in the U.S. nowadays proving temporary, with more than a million babies born each year to women who never wed in the first place, and with estimates that half of today’s American children will spend at least a portion of their childhood in a single-parent family, it is hardly surprising that family issues have soared up the charts of problems that worry us. Which also qualifies them, of course, to be the butt of jokes, as in a recent cartoon depicting two youngish adults, one saying to the other, “It’s only marriage I’m proposing after all, not a lifetime commitment.”

Indeed, the past several years have seen an uncommonly swift change in how the issue of family meltdown is discussed. From derision at former Vice President Dan Quayle for his “Murphy Brown” speech and resentment over the prominence of “family values” at the 1992 Republican convention, the country may be moving toward something like a consensual judgment that, as the Atlantic titled its now-famous article by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “Dan Quayle Was Right.”

Similar views have been expressed by high-ranking Clinton-administration officials, including the President himself, and by other prominent liberals like Jesse Jackson. More than a few analysts attribute the GOP election sweep in 1994 to popular dismay over the cultural and institutional decay signified by ephemeral families and surging illegitimacy rates. Welfare reform has reached the top of our domestic-policy priorities not because our current arrangements are all that expensive but because changing the rules is seen as a way to get people to alter their behavior, to take responsibility for their children, and not to have children they cannot or will not look after. The budget deficit may benefit from such reforms, but it is the morals deficit that really alarms us.

David Blankenhorn’s eloquent book, Fatherless America, is thus well-timed. And he is amply qualified to write it. Blankenhorn founded and today heads the Institute of American Values and chairs a new endeavor called the National Fatherhood Initiative. He has impeccable credentials as an articulate, thoughtful, and moderate advocate devoted to the renewal of the American family in general and to responsible fatherhood in particular.

Blankenhorn’s book is not, however, a manual for policy wonks bent on reconfiguring the rules that have brought us to our current pass. Nor is it primarily about welfare or even illegitimacy. It is a treatise on fatherlessness: why that plague is spreading; why it is so damaging to children and society alike; and, above all, why the elite culture has sanctioned, and even encouraged, its further spread.

Within that domain, the book is gutsy and clarifying. Its core is seven splendidly wrought chapters on what Blankenhorn terms “the cultural script”: how our contemporary obsessions with widening individual and group rights, pursuing pleasure, rejecting authority, defying tradition, mocking institutions, relativizing values, diminishing religion, and sloughing off responsibility have conspired to weaken the family and devalue fatherhood.

These obsessions do not come from a hole in the ozone layer. Blankenhorn is candid and tough about the harm wrought by feminists, child-rearing advisers, divorce reformers, “experts” on gender differences, and more than a few postmodern sociologists, psychologists, therapists, and the like. He shows how the replacement of the “old father” (a strong, masculine, breadwinning figure of stability and authority) by the “new father” (nurturing, sharing, non-judgmental, androgynous) leads inexorably to the “unnecessary father.” And he does not flinch at exposing the harm this does to children, families, and society.

Ordinary people would appear to agree with Blankenhorn. In one of the more arresting sections of this book he recounts the results of focus groups and interviews he and his associates held with several hundred married, middle-class fathers. These men had no trouble settling on the characteristics of a “good family man.” A Denver group, for example, chose such traits as “provider and protector”; “shows love of spouse and children through actions”; and “[has] biblical and moral values.”

Blankenhorn discloses the great gulf between such largely traditional, morally grounded convictions about what fathers should be and do and what he terms “contemporary elite discourse on fatherhood.” “In today’s dominant cultural conversation,” he writes:

[P]robably the central prescription regarding fatherhood is to lower our standards. Expect and accept less. Instead of good fathers, settle for child-support payments, divorce reform, and other attempts to salvage something from the wreckage. Don’t get too preachy. Focus more on rights than on responsibilities. Search for adequate substitutes for fathers.

Thus, as so often seems to be the case, most of the “experts” are light years away from the priorities and values of much of the populace, and are actively justifying and promoting that which the American middle class knows to be wrong.

We ought not to be surprised, then, that what was once thought deviant is becoming more commonplace. With respect to fatherlessness, this takes two primary forms—illegitimacy and divorce—but only the first of these has entered our policy discourse in a big way and is any longer deemed deviant.

Though illegitimacy—being born to an unmarried woman—is rising at a rapid clip, it accounted for just 30 percent of the ten million mothers (in 1990) living with children whose fathers were elsewhere. The other 70 percent of female-headed households resulted from divorce, separation, and desertion, i.e., from families that once existed but had come apart.

This huge population of fatherless children does not get anywhere near the attention that we have begun to pay to illegitimacy. And it may be the singular contribution of Blankenhorn’s book to insist that, from the standpoint of both wounded child and degenerating society, fatherlessness, whatever its origin, is fatherlessness.

That “unformed families” get so much more notice than “former families” is, in my opinion, traceable to two causes.

First, we have persuaded ourselves that divorce is not as damaging to children as being born to an unmarried mother. Sometimes that is even true. All of us know adults who are better off without their former spouses and once in a while their children’s lot also improves, especially if the divorced mother then marries someone who turns out to be a terrific (step) father.

But this is rare. Blankenhorn summarizes the relevant research, which shows that children

in stepfamilies not only experienced far worse outcomes than did children who grew up with their two biological parents but also, on almost every measurement, experienced worse outcomes than did children from single-parent homes.

And as for the now-absent biological father, even when he provides financial support and regularly visits his progeny, Blankenhorn is brutally candid:

The end of co-residency and the rupture of the parental alliance mean nothing less than the collapse of paternal authority. Visiting fatherhood almost always becomes disempowered fatherhood, a simulacrum of paternal capacity. . . . [O]nly wishful thinking permits us to continue viewing him as a parent at all. At bottom, he is no longer a father.

A second reason for the low visibility of the type of fatherlessness arising from family breakup has to do with social class. Whereas illegitimacy happens mostly among people who live on the other side of the tracks, much divorce and separation take place in “our” own neighborhoods, indeed among our friends and relations, and sometimes even ourselves. If we are honest, we will acknowledge that this makes it harder to condemn the practice, or even to depict it as a pressing social problem. We are engaged, in Senator Daniel P. Moynihan’s evocative phrase, in “defining deviancy down.” Doing otherwise would turn lots of social critics and public officials, many of them on their second wives and fathers of children who now live with someone else, into hypocrites.

Thus, in today’s America there are many more “visiting fathers” than there are welfare mothers: a big truth that the “family-values” crowd seldom mentions, though a few brave commentators have broken ranks. Some months ago, for example, William J. Bennett told the Christian Coalition that it should be more concerned with divorce than with homosexuality, and that the greatest threat to the health of children and of society was not adults misbehaving with one another, but millions of families coming apart.



Even Blankenhorn seems to pull his punches when it comes to the what-should-be-done part of his otherwise excellent book. While his recommendations are unimpeachable, they are also bland and almost comically lacking in force. He urges, for example, that men take a fatherhood pledge; that the White House issue an annual report on the state of fatherhood in America; and that “a few good men should start creating Fathers’ Clubs in their local communities.”

Well, sure, why not? It might do some good. It cannot do any harm. But at a time when the nation’s airwaves and legislative chambers are full of tough talk about orphanages, making mothers go to work whether they want to or not, denying benefits to immigrants, requiring teenage mothers to live with their own parents, ending the “entitlement” aspect of welfare, and refusing to increase payments to those who have additional out-of-wedlock children, these policy prescriptions seem pretty pallid stuff.

If we were to get truly serious about fatherlessness, we would not only be paying attention to reforming welfare and “restigmatizing” illegitimacy, we would also be devising ways to make divorce and separation scarce, at least in cases where marriage produces children. That does not mean just inventing better child-support arrangements or getting tougher with “deadbeat dads.” (Blankenhorn documents the futility of most such efforts.) It means actually making divorce more difficult, painful, or embarrassing to obtain; punishing desertion; and stigmatizing separation.

One can readily imagine both some public policies that might help produce those effects and the cultural and attitudinal shifts that would be needed to undergird them. Yet I cannot conceive any of this actually coming to pass in the foreseeable future. Like Social Security reform, divorce and other forms of family break-up are likely to remain “off the table,” if only because the political consequences of addressing them are too painful to contemplate. Instead, we will deal with the politically safe portion of the morals deficit, even though that leaves us a great distance away from a balanced morals budget. We will, in short, continue to pull our own punches.

In such an environment, Blankenhorn’s book, even when it faintly resembles a “Just Say No” poster on the wall of a crack house, is welcome indeed.

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