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Men, fish, bicycles and the relationship to child-rearing

By From page B5 | June 14, 2014

During the 1970s, as the feminist movement forced us to reconsider the role of women in society, Australian Senator and writer Irina Dunn famously stated, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”

The famous quip was subsequently popularized by American feminist Gloria Steinem, leading to countless T-shirts and posters featuring fish perched on bicycles. As Father’s Day approaches, let me suggest that both dads and moms are important in the lives of our kids. This is a subject that social scientists have debated for more than half a century, at least.

In 1965, U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Ph.D. sociologist, issued what became known as the “Moynihan Report.” Moynihan analyzed urban poverty, examining the challenges facing inner-city families. Moynihan, an advocate for the Johnson administration’s so-called “war on poverty,” noted high rates of single-parent child-rearing in disadvantaged families, with resulting economic failure.

Similarly, anthropologist Oscar Lewis, working around the same time, described a “culture of poverty,” characterized by absence of traditional nuclear family structure, and associated failure to achieve socio-economic success. Moynihan and Lewis were both criticized, as their observations struck some as discriminatory or patronizing. On the other hand, neither researcher was off-track in linking family dynamics to economic outcomes.

Moreover, both researchers acknowledged the importance of other factors that contributed to educational and financial inequality in America, including entrenched racial discrimination at that time.

When Moynihan issued his report, only 7.7 percent of births in America were considered “out of wedlock,” a high figure for the time. By contrast, Japan’s single-parenting rate was only around 1 percent. As of 2012, by contrast, American government statistics indicate that 40.7 percent of children in the U.S. are born to single mothers. Single parent birth rates in the U.S. are 17.1 percent among Asians and Pacific islanders, 29.4 percent among non-Hispanic whites, 53.5 percent among Hispanics and 72 percent among non-Hispanic blacks, according to governmental data. The so-called out-of-wedlock rate of 7.7 percent that prompted concern in Sen. Moynihan’s report is now an order of magnitude greater in some settings. What are the economic implications of single-parent child-rearing?

Women generally raise children as single parents more frequently than do men, and unmarried women raising children are four times more likely to live in poverty than are their married female peers. Women rearing children alone earn less than half the average income that would accrue to a two-parent family. Among women struggling to raise children alone in the African-American community, average income is 36 percent of that seen in two-parent households, and among white women the comparable figure is
46 percent. The economic burden of single-parent child-rearing is enormous, and may affect people of color in a disproportionate manner.

As Father’s Day approaches, it is worthwhile to consider what can be done societally to encourage strong families, with active parental involvement in the lives of children. Based on my own anecdotal observations as a physician, the economic component of this equation is critical.

For example, I see a disproportionate number of middle-aged men in their 40s and 50s who lost their jobs during the economic downturn of the past half-decade. Those without any college education are particularly hard hit. I see job-creation as critical for maintaining healthy families.

In researching this column, I came across a quotation by the aforementioned Gloria Steinem: “Most American children suffer too much mother and too little father.”

I am not sure how that view squares with the idea that men are as extraneous, as fish are to bicycles. Both parents, I believe, are critical to healthy child-rearing.

I wish you all a healthy, and happy, Father’s Day!

Scott T. Anderson, M.D., Ph.D. ([email protected]) is clinical professor of medicine, UC Davis. This column is informational, and does not constitute medical advice.

 

Scott Anderson

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