“American fathers are today more removed from family life than ever before in our history,” wrote sociologist David Popenoe in his pathbreaking book, Life Without Father. “And according to a growing body of evidence, this massive erosion of fatherhood contributes mightily to many of the major social problems of our time.”
Popenoe wrote these words more than 25 years ago, but his assessment remains as relevant in 2022 as it was in 1996. The decline of marriage and the rise of fatherlessness in America remain at the center of some of the biggest problems facing the nation: crime and violence, school failure, deaths of despair, and children in poverty.
The predicament of the American male is of particular importance here. The percentage of boys living apart from their biological father has almost doubled since 1960—from about 17% to 32% today; now, an estimated 12 million boys are growing up in families without their biological father.1 Specifically, approximately 62.5% of boys under 18 are living in an intact-biological family, 1.7% are living in a step-family with their biological father and step- or adoptive mother, 4.2% are living with their single, biological father, and 31.5% are living in a home without their biological father.2
Lacking the day-to-day involvement, guidance, and positive example of their father in the home, and the financial advantages associated with having him in the household, these boys are more likely to act up, lash out, flounder in school, and fail at work as they move into adolescence and adulthood. Even though not all fathers play a positive role in their children’s lives, on average, boys benefit from having a present and involved father.
This Institute for Family Studies research brief details the connections between fatherlessness, family structure, and the increasing number of young men who are floundering in life and pose a threat to themselves and their communities. We do so by exploring the links between family structure and college completion, idleness (defined here as twenty-somethings not in school or working), and involvement with the criminal justice system (measured by arrests and incarceration) for young men in the 2000s and 2010s, using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1997 (NLSY97). We specifically examine how young men who were raised in a home with their biological father compare on these outcomes to their peers in families without their biological father.3 Here is what we found.