Empirical data from recent studies of low-income families has researchers rethinking the importance of the father in the home, or one who is at least accessible and involved, according to Felicia Yang DeLeone, policy researcher with the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness.
"The importance of the father’s presence and engagement to overall family functioning is well documented," DeLeone said. "Children whose fathers are accessible and engaged display fewer behavioral problems, lower levels of delinquency, higher IQ scores, and less psychological distress than children with less-involved fathers."
"Profiles of Risk: Father Involvement (in Poor Families)," is 10th in a series of research briefs published by ICPH, a social-science research institute based in New York. ICPH examines nationwide trends to determine the causes of child and family homelessness.
DeLeone said the father’s involvement brief uses data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a national survey of nearly 5,000 families, which followed the birth of each family’s focal child. DeLeone defined focal child as the specific child who was followed from birth to age five during the study. The father’s-involvement study divides the focal children into three groups: ever-homeless or doubled-up, ever-at-risk and stably-housed.
She said ever-homeless or doubled-up children either have lived in shelters or shared a home with another family at some point between birth and age five. She said ever-at-risk children live in economically unstable homes where paying the bills is a struggle, and stably-housed children live in homes with one or both parents and there’s no threat of becoming homeless.
"For mothers in our Fragile Families sample, more education is related to having more housing stability," said DeLeone, noting that homeless mothers are more likely to be high-school dropouts than those that are stably-housed. "For fathers, we found low education levels across the board. This is reflective of the low education levels of poor men in general."
DeLeone said there are times when the father’s presence in the home is not a good thing. The behavior of some fathers can have a negative impact on the children, not only for their inability to provide financial support but also for physical or drug abuse.
Calling it a "chicken-or-egg situation," she said studies have found that fathers who have been incarcerated, or who exhibit behaviors that make incarceration likely, are less likely to be married to the mothers of the focal child. Conversely, fathers who are married to the mother of the focal child tend not to exhibit behaviors that could lead to incarceration.
DeLeone said frequent studies have shown that married men are healthier and happier and tend to have better employment outcomes than single men.
"This brief shows that to improve housing stability and lessen homelessness, it is important to improve educational and economic opportunities of poor men so they can better support their children," DeLeone concluded. "Too often, in making funding decisions, the best interests of children get lost. This brief is sent to advocates, policy makers and other government officials who have the power to change policy."
Daisy Jones, coordinator for Hinesville’s Homeless Prevention Program, was one government official who received ICPH’s brief.
"I won’t be using this for a class, but some of the statistics are striking and reflective of what we see locally from day to day, (like) unemployment, lack of high school education, multiple fathers, etc.," said Jones, whose program includes classes designed to help individuals and families develop life skills, gain income and become self-sufficient. "It’s an urgent need that the father be there and be involved. His absence not only affects the family economically but also socially and emotionally. It has a long-term impact."
Jones said her office sees 20-30 clients each month, nearly all of whom are single mothers. She said some of them have children by separate fathers.
She strongly supports public awareness programs that promote better education for poor fathers and encourages them to be accessible and stay involved with their children.