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'State of America's Fathers' examines parenthood in 2016
New national report says fathers are more involved than ever before. But they still need help in a nation that has two distinct fatherhood experiences, one for haves and the other for have-nots. - photo by Lois M. Collins
America has two distinct fatherhood experiences: one for dads with few financial and education resources and one for those with more education and better finances. But the needs of their children are strikingly similar: All children need parents who are crazy about them and assume nurturing, caregiving roles, according to a new report that says policies and practices need to encourage all dads working to support their kids in both economic and emotional ways.

The State of America's Fathers was released Tuesday by Promundo-US and the MensCare campaign. It uses preliminary, previously unpublished data from the Families and Work Institute's National Study of the Changing Workforce. Promundo is an international organization that works with males to promote gender equality and emphasize their caregiver roles alongside women, Promundo-US president and CEO Gary Barker said.

The report found fathers overall have increased the time they spend with their kids by nearly a third over the past three decades, and that the number of men and women who want to share child care responsibilities is at a high point. But while high-income men are celebrated for their involvement with their offspring, men of lower means, many not living with their kids, are "often either valued or stigmatized simply by their ability to pay their way."

How men experience fatherhood across that economic divide greatly impacts family life.

"Society increasingly encourages upper-middle and upper-income fathers to be highly engaged with their children with many Fortune 500 companies offering paid parental leave to back this up," the report said. "On the other end, low-income dads have the least access to paid leave in the country: 95 percent of low-wage workers do not have the option of taking paid family leave through their employer's policies for the birth of a child or to care for a seriously ill family member."

Involved, but challenged

As many as half of children don't live in so-called traditional families with their married biological moms and dads. That norm of the 1950s, '60s and '70s has given way to what Barker calls "alternative family structures," including divorced or never-married parents.

Policies and attitudes favor "have" dads over the "have-nots," he said. Lower-income, less-educated dads are more likely to be nonresident parents who don't live with their children than are high-income, well-educated dads. He noted many fall behind in their obligations to their children not because they don't want to pay, but because the expectations are unrealistically high. They are challenged by poverty, lack of education and fewer opportunities more often than they are shiftless, he said, calling them "not deadbeat fathers, but dead-broke ones."

Barker noted 2.7 million children in America have lives further complicated by having a parent, usually a father, who is incarcerated or in some kind of mandated program such as substance abuse treatment or mental health.

Difference in parenting quality between the well-educated, higher-earning fathers and the less-educated and poorer is complex, said Barker, not one-size-fits-all. "We do know that some father involvement is better than none," across incomes and education levels, absent abuse, he said, adding that parenting skills can be taught and the key factor is a warm, nurturing father.

A child's basic need is surprisingly simple: "First and foremost, one caregiver at least who is crazy about you. Two who are crazy about you is ever better," said Barker. Upon that foundation one can add skills and other parent-enhancing resources.

Society sometimes gets the story of nonresident dads wrong, the report said, and may portray them as "absent fathers or, worse, deadbeat dads," while research paints a different story: Most nonresident fathers are "consistently very active in the lives of their children."

That doesn't mean moms and dads are splitting caregiving roles equitably, though. "New data in this report show that, as of 2016, half (50 percent) of married/partnered American fathers self-identify as their childrens primary caregiver or report sharing that responsibility equally with their partners. However, only 34 percent of married/partnered mothers report that this is the case," the report noted. "Additionally, most of these mothers report taking the primary responsibility for cooking (66 percent) and cleaning (68 percent). And this is the case even though women, including mothers, are entering the workforce at a higher rate than ever before, while mens workforce participation has slightly declined."

"Despite these trends, new evidence shows that men are as hard-wired to take care of children as women are."

And neither sex believes they are doing as much as they should for their children. Three-fourths feel like they don't get enough time with their kids. "The reports authors attribute this to workplace policies better suited for 'Leave It to Beaver' than 'Modern Family.' Basically, the way the countrys companies handle these issues needs to evolve three whole generations before it starts to reflect the reality of their employees," writes Carter Gaddis for Fatherly.

What to do

The report offers recommendations to help both men and women in their roles raising children. Among them:

National legislation for "paid, equal and non-transferable leave for mothers and fathers of newborns." The report said states that offer paid leave to parents, including New York and California, fund the cost with a payroll tax of about 1 percent.

Parents should have joint physical custody of children in cases of divorce with no history or threat of violence, but the report also emphasizes the child's best interests.

Policies like a living wage and justice reform should be used to support low-income fathers and families in caregiver roles, said the report, which noted nonresident fathers who pay child support should receive an Earned Income Tax Credit.

Workplace policies should value men and women equally for both employment contributions and caregiver roles. The report said men should be encouraged to enter health, education, administration and literacy professions, while children should "learn the value of caregiving from young ages."

A related summit was held Tuesday in New York City, hosted by online parenting resource Fatherly and Promundo, sponsored by Johnson & Johnson.