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Red States Can Lead the Way on Marriage and Fatherhood

National Review

December 1, 2023

“If we care about our children, if we care about the vibrancy of our communities, we have no choice but to have the conversation” about absent fatherhood, said Chris Sprowls, who served as a prosecutor in Florida before going on to become speaker of the state house in 2020. In his work on cases involving gangs and homicide, he found — over and over again — that the vast majority of the young men he prosecuted had grown up without a father in the home.

His experience with fatherless young men was a driving force behind his initiative to enact fatherhood-related legislation in Florida. The bill passed with unanimous bipartisan support — and was signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis — early last year. Florida is now rolling out a $21.1 million fatherhood initiative that will combine public-service ads, outreach to nonresident dads (dads who don’t live with their children), and evidence-based parental education in an effort to help men be better fathers.

It is a welcome step towards emphasizing, rather than minimizing or denying, the value of fathers. Too often, particularly in the halls of academia and in the media, elites have overlooked the significance of fatherhood and the power of two-parent households. “Women possess the innate mompower that in itself is more than sufficient to raise fine sons,” said psychologist Peggy Drexler of Cornell University.

But in recent years, we have seen a growing recognition from scholars and policy-makers, even those on the left, that dads make a difference. The most prominent example is Brookings Institution fellow Richard Reeves, who acknowledges in his 2022 book Of Boys and Men that “fathers matter for their children’s welfare in ways that are different from, but equal to, those of mothers.” He points to the educational, mental-health, and other benefits that engaged fathers provide to their children.

The only problem with the Left’s newfound appreciation of fatherhood is that it does not extend to marriage. Progressive advocates of fatherhood like Reeves believe we need to make our peace with the reality that a large minority of kids — slightly fewer than 30 percent — are living apart from their dads. “The goal,” in his words, “is to bolster the role of fathers as direct providers of care to their children, whether or not they are married to or even living with the mother.”

What Reeves misses is that most men find it difficult to forge strong everyday relationships with their kids absent marriage, and that children are much more likely to struggle when they grow up in a home without their dad. For instance, new research by Wendy Wang at the Institute for Family Studies finds that the average nonresident father spends less than an hour a week with his child; by contrast, the average married dad spends eight hours a week. This is a staggering difference, and it is enormously consequential for children. As Melissa Kearney notes in her new book, The Two-Parent Privilege:

Children from single-parent homes have more behavioral problems, are more likely to get in trouble in school or with the law, achieve lower levels of education and tend to earn lower incomes in adulthood. Boys from homes without dads present are particularly prone to getting in trouble in school or with the law. 

Clearly, girls and especially boys are much more likely to flourish if they grow up with their married fathers. No institution compares to marriage when it comes to binding fathers to their children.

This is a point worth keeping in mind as other red states follow Florida’s lead. Tennessee’s Department of Human Services recently hosted its inaugural Fatherhood Conference, which included policy-makers, nonprofit leaders, and researchers. Commissioner Clarence Carter stated unequivocally that “fathers are not a luxury.” “Fathers are not nice to have,” he clarified: “Fathers are essential.” Carter and Tennessee governor Bill Lee (R.) aim to build a major public–private initiative on behalf of fatherhood that could become another model, alongside Florida’s, for other states. Texas has a modest fatherhood initiative, and Iowa and Arkansas are considering similar policies.

Tennessee has work to do. As of 2022, about a third of its children live in homes headed by single mothers. That number has not changed much since 2018. In 2020, nearly 45 percent of all births were to unmarried women, above the national average of 40 percent. In 2021, Tennessee ranked in the top ten states for divorce rates.

There are, however, some good signs in the Volunteer State. Post-Covid, it has emerged as a magnet for married families looking for a growing economy and a culture congenial to right-leaning parents. One consequence is that, since 2020, the share of births to moms outside marriage has dipped, and the share of kids being raised in married families has ticked up. In 2018, roughly 37 percent of the women ages 15 to 50 who gave birth were unmarried. By 2022, that number had fallen to 32 percent. In the same period, the number of married couples with children under 18 increased by 7 percent, compared with a 3 percent increase nationally.

Any initiative that seeks to address the issue of fatherlessness in Tennessee should promote responsible fatherhood, strengthen marriage, and assist nonresident fathers in their unique challenges. Policy-makers too often think in zero-sum terms — focusing only on helping nonresident dads or on encouraging marriage. But we should do both: We can recognize the importance of encouraging all dads — resident and nonresident — to do a good job with their kids while also promoting the institution that maximizes the odds that men will live with and care for their children.

One way to promote fatherhood across the state would be to launch a public-service-announcement campaign that emphasized the importance of being a responsible father. It could present as examples men who are actively engaged in their household, play with their children, and recognize their distinctive role in their children’s lives. Dads who make time to play with their kids have a tremendous impact on their children’s development. For example, dads’ rough-and-tumble play is linked to social success, emotional regulation, and reduced aggression and anxiety. Effective campaigns could also showcase fathers who have overcome challenges to become more nurturing parents. A fatherhood campaign might discourage divorce as it educates more parents on how much dads matter.

Otherwise, Tennessee schools should promote the “success sequence” — graduating from (at least) high school, obtaining a full-time job, getting married, and having children, in that order. Research has shown that 97 percent of young adults who follow the success sequence have avoided poverty as they reach their prime young-adult years. Instruction on the success sequence could be incorporated into social-science and personal-finance courses. There is already an appetite for it: According to a YouGov survey conducted for the Institute for Family Studies, about three-quarters of Tennesseans support the idea of public schools’ being required to teach the success sequence.

Schools also need to be more boy-friendly. Right now, boys in public schools across the state are more likely than girls to be suspended, expelled, or floundering. Tennessee can address this gender gap in many ways, such as single-sex public education, more recess and more male teachers, and more high-quality career and technical education that caters to boys who are not suited to traditional education.

Beyond the classroom, there should be programs for fathers. Given that about a third of children live in single-mother households, Tennessee should fund responsible-fatherhood programs that provide one-on-one mentorship and advance the welfare of children and mothers. Consider the Dads Making a Difference program in Chattanooga, created by the nonprofit First Things First. The 13-week program guides dads through child support, getting and maintaining a job, seeing their children more often, and helping repair their relationships with the mothers of their children. A statewide program like this could help give more fathers the understanding and resources they need.

Lastly, to address the unique challenges facing boys and men, Tennessee should form a commission to oversee each of the aforementioned policies, with the central goals of bridging the gender gap in educational performance, encouraging pro-social masculinity, and preparing young men for marriage and fatherhood. The Institute for Family Studies survey found that 83 percent of Tennesseans support the idea of such a commission. Tennessee has the opportunity to counter the misogynistic masculinity modeled by figures such as Andrew Tate and to prepare young men for marriage and fatherhood.

Tennessee is increasingly becoming, and should be, a magnet for families. With a low cost of living and a thriving job market, it makes sense that Forbes ranks it as one of the top ten states to which people are moving. Implementing responsible-fatherhood policies is vital to reversing negative child- and family-welfare trends in the Volunteer State, but the success of those policies will depend on the state’s ability to promote marriage, too. If it can advance these crucial and related goals, Tennessee will likely inspire similar efforts across the country and contribute to a future of better fathers, happier children, and a stronger society.

About the Authors

W. Bradford Wilcox

Nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and a Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, where he directs the National Marriage Project

Michael Pugh

Research associate at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)