Editor’s Note: The following essay is an edited transcript of AEI senior fellow Ian Rowe’s opening remarks at “A Debate on Fatherhood,” hosted by the National Marriage Project at UVA and the American Enterprise Institute on April 25, 2023. The event, which was moderated by IFS senior fellow Brad Wilcox, featured a discussion between Richard Reeves and Ian Rowe on the question: “Does strengthening fatherhood depend upon renewing marriage in America?” The full, unedited transcript of the event can be downloaded here.
Let me start by doing something a bit unorthodox for a debate, outlining where I think we have common ground. As someone who has run public charter schools for more than a decade in low-income communities in New York City, I have seen firsthand the issues that boys and young men face. In 2014, I opened the first all-boys public charter school in the South Bronx community where the nonmarital birth rate is about 80 percent. Many of our boys had strained or nonexistent relationships with their unmarried, nonresident fathers, and as Richard advises in his book, we did our best to hire male teachers, especially in elementary school, so the boys could have consistent and positive role models. Even personally, my wife and I held our own son from kindergarten for a year because of his November birthday, which is another one of Richard’s recommendations from his book.
In August of last year, I launched the New International Baccalaureate High School, Vertex Partnership Academies, also in the Bronx. The school will empower boys and girls to choose apprenticeships during their junior and senior years so that they can have an alternative to the college-for-all approach that has dominated secondary education, but frankly has not served our nation well, which is another recommendation from Richard’s book. Therefore, we have several areas of agreement. Richard and I are colleagues and friends, and I have much respect for his dedication to improving the lives of boys.
Yet, while we share areas of agreement, the path that Richard suggests—creating fatherhood as an institution independent of marriage, and even independent of cohabitation—is a path that I believe will do further damage to the boys and men that I know Richard is genuinely seeking to help. I say this, not because I am an expert fortune-teller who can accurately predict the future, but rather because I am someone who sees the devastating impact today of fathers when they are untethered from marriage and untethered from living with their own children.
I am a storyteller, so let me share with you why I believe this. On July 11, 2016, at about 4 p.m. on 149th Street and 3rd Avenue in the South Bronx, I had an epiphany moment that forced me to look at the world in a whole new way. I led a network of schools, educating more than 2,000 low-income, primarily black and Hispanic students. Each year, our random lottery left nearly 5,000 applicant families on an excruciatingly long waitlist. We had just decided to move our headquarters from Manhattan to the South Bronx, committed to opening new public charter schools in a district in which only 2% of kids graduated from high school ready for college. On that hot summer afternoon, my team and I ventured out to get to know our new neighborhood. And on that walking tour, I saw a 27-foot, baby blue Winnebago truck with graffiti lettering on the side. Adults were gathered around the truck, similar to the way the kids excitedly welcome the ice cream truck. The graffiti lettering on the side of the truck said, “Who’s Your Daddy?” It turned out that the “Who’s Your Daddy” truck is a mobile DNA testing center, where low-income folks were spending somewhere between $350 and $500 for swab tests to answer profound questions such as, “Are you my sister?” or “Could you be my father?”
Demand was so robust, the second “Who’s Your Daddy?” truck provided services to other boroughs in New York, and nationally, in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. VH1 even launched a reality series called “Swab Stories.” Somehow, all of this family tragedy had become entertainment. I remember being struck, not only by how much the paternity testing services were needed by real people in fragile families, but also by the absolute normalcy and acceptance of the truck in the South Bronx. I wondered what would happen if the “Who’s Your Daddy?” truck were to show up in the Westchester, New York suburb where I live. As the crow flies, it is just a few miles north of the South Bronx, but in some regards, it’s a universe away. In my neighborhood, virtually every household is headed by two married parents. I imagined that within 30 minutes of the truck arriving, it would be forced to leave.
While some argue that opportunities to pursue the American dream are divided by race, class, education, or gender, the brutal truth is that today, a parent’s marital status has displaced all of those factors as the primary driver of child and intergenerational poverty.
I share this real-world story of my epiphany moment because this discussion is not theoretical or academic. Richard’s vision in some ways already exists in many struggling parts of America, where single fatherhood is currently the norm, and where fatherhood is an institution already fully divorced from marriage and cohabitation. My vision also exists in many flourishing parts of America, where married fatherhood is the norm and where marriage is the institution that actually strengthens fatherhood. While some argue that opportunities to pursue the American dream are divided by race, class, education, or gender, the brutal truth, I believe, is that today a parent’s marital status has displaced all of those factors as the primary driver of child and intergenerational poverty.
Harvard’s Raj Chetty outlined this reality in his study a couple of years ago entitled “Where is the Land of Opportunity?” in which he researched the sources of intergenerational mobility for more than 40 million children and their parents between 1996 and 2012. The study identified cities where children from families in the lowest 20% of income were most likely to have incomes in the top 20% as adults. Chetty found two Americas, a collection of societies, some of which he called lands of opportunity, with high rates of mobility across generations, and others in which few children escaped poverty. A major conclusion was that “The strongest predictors of upward mobility are measures of family structure, such as the fraction of single parents in the area.”
Kathy Edin, whose work Richard cites in his book, has studied low-income couples for decades. She explains why high levels of single parenting cause a high degree of what she calls re-partnering, which results in more than half of children born to single parents seeing their moms or dads form up to four or more romantic relationships during the child’s first five years of life. Many of these young parents lack good education and aren’t emotionally, financially, or otherwise prepared to raise a child. Far too many young men, themselves facing unemployment challenges, seem to be in a state of perpetual adolescence. As Richard acknowledges, family instability and disengaged fathers affect boys more than girls.
After studying more than one million children born in Florida between 1992 and 2002, MIT researcher David Autor found that, relative to their sisters, boys born to low-education and unmarried mothers, raised in low-income neighborhoods, and enrolled at poor-quality public schools have a higher incidence of truancy and behavioral problems throughout elementary and middle school. They also exhibit higher rates of behavioral and cognitive disability, perform worse on standardized tests, are less likely to graduate high school, and are more likely to commit serious crimes as juveniles.
I understand that Richard feels the married two-parent family structure is outdated and that he wants to restore fatherhood by strengthening the direct relationship between a father and his children, regardless of whether or not he is in a relationship with the mother. But all the depressing statistics that we know are really an indictment of unmarried fatherhood, not married fatherhood. Where I believe his theory goes off the rails is that, in the absence of a marriage with a firm commitment to the mother, especially in a non-marital birth, the father’s relationship he is seeking to strengthen with the child is often severed. Marriage is the institution that first bonds the father to the mother as her husband, the original commitment, even before children are present. Marriage is the social institution, however imperfect, that imposes a moral obligation on a father that no other institution can replicate. And certainly not the government. I agree that paid leave should be equally available to men and women. But no policy is going to bond fathers to children as effectively as having married parents. Respectfully, what Richard is proposing, I believe, is a luxury belief: an idea that confers status on the privileged who don’t need to subscribe to that idea, but that idea takes a toll on the less privileged. People who say that marriage is just an oppressive institution of the patriarchy are usually themselves married with children, whom they expect to become married with children as well: the intergenerational transmission of advantage.
As Richard shared, he’s a father who has raised three boys. I am a father too, raising a boy and a girl. But Richard and I are not just fathers—we are married fathers. I think we need to preach what we practice, as well as talk about the how. It makes no sense to emphasize the importance of healthy family engagement, while discounting the primary vehicle that drives healthy father engagement. I think he’s advocating for a belief that I don’t think he would ever want for his own boys, and we can talk about that. I certainly don’t want it for my son, Oscar. Ultimately, I think we both want a world in which no girl or boy ever has to ask the question, “Who’s your daddy?” Because the answer will always be, “He is right here.”
Ian Rowe is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the CEO of Vertex Partnership Academies. His new book is Agency: The Four-Point Plan (FREE) for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power (Templeton Press, May 2022).