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When The Only Parent Is Daddy


Social Issues: FAMILIES

WHEN THE ONLY PARENT IS DADDY

When Roy E. Jenkins discovered that he had cancer last February, he had to take an unpaid leave from his job as a landscaper for the Washington (D.C.) transit system to undergo radiation and chemotherapy. The city's medical plan paid those bills. But Jenkins, 35, soon ran out of money to pay his mortgage and feed his three children, ages 9, 12, and 13, whom he has reared since his divorce seven years ago.

Jenkins applied for welfare, but the agency merely told him to try to collect the child support of $318 a month that his former wife owed him and didn't always pay. Child-support officials weren't much help, either. Jenkins, a Maryland resident, complained for months and wrote his city council representative and U.S. senator until, finally, the child-support agency got an arrest warrant for the former Mrs. Jenkins. It still hasn't been enforced, even though Jenkins had to declare personal bankruptcy to avoid foreclosure on his house before he returned to work in August. "Now I know how a lot of single mothers feel," says Jenkins. "I can understand why they're so frustrated with the system and with men not paying their child support."

Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown focused national attention on single mothers last summer, but what about their male counterparts? Since 1980, the number of single fathers has doubled, to nearly 1.4 million (chart). While that's still a fraction of the country's 8.7 million single moms, the ranks of single dads have grown at 6% a year in the past decade--double the rate for single mothers. Today, fathers head nearly 14% of all single-parent households.

IGNORED. Yet they seem to be all but invisible. Academics and policy experts know little about these men and their children and what their problems might be. Ditto for most companies, whose work/family efforts are geared mainly to women, and for government programs such as welfare and child support--despite evidence that many families headed by single fathers are poverty-stricken and need help. "Single fathers are an aspect of diversity in the work force that no one is paying attention to," says James A. Levine, head of the Fatherhood Project, a New York group that studies the involvement of men in child-rearing. As awareness of the issue spreads, it's likely to affect everything from government programs to corporate benefit plans.

A variety of social and economic changes has been propelling the increasein single fatherhood. For much of this century, divorce courts assumed that young children needed their mothers for proper psychological development. This theory gave way in the 1970s to one that says judges should do what's in the child's best interests, which can mean giving children to the parent who will provide the best care. The courts also have given unwed fathers, whose numbers have jumped from 68,000 in 1980 to 380,000 today, more rights to be involved in their kids' lives.

These trends have made it easier for fathers to gain custody of their children--though mothers remain far more likely to ask for custody and win a legal battle. "I don't think men have an equal shot at gaining custody today, but we're moving rapidly toward equality of opportunity," says Marshall J. Wolf, a Cleaveland lawyer who heads the American Bar Assn.'s Family Law Section.

The women's movement has played a role as well. As women pushed fathers to take a larger role in parenting, it became more acceptable for dads to care for kids. Witness Kramer vs. Kramer, the 1979 movie starring Dustin Hoffman as a dad who wants custody of his child. And, as more women worked outside the home, they gained another source of identity in addition to child-rearing. "We need to lose the societal stereotype that there's something wrong with a mother if she doesn't have her children," says Jennifer Isham, the president of Mothers Without Custody, a national support group for women who aren't raising their kids.

Joseph Pipher is one father who has discarded the stereotypes. The filmmaker, 43, has cared for Danielle, now 10, since he and his wife divorced nearly six years ago. Pipher, wo lives in Old Greenwich, Conn., didn't want to give up his daughter. His wife, also a filmmaker, gradually relented. She lives nearby and usually takes Danielle for part of the weekend. "She has participated in the child-rearing in a flip-flop of the traditional way," says Pipher.

FOR WOMEN ONLY? Many single fathers have a difficult time making ends meet. Although the average annual income of single fathers is about $24,000 vs. $13,000 for single moms, one-third of them earn less than $10,000, according to a new study by Daniel R. Myer, a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin. What's more, government programs such as welfare don't seem to serve needy single fathers well. There are 3.6 million single mothers below the poverty line, almost exactly the number on welfare, according to Meyer. Yet only 111,000 single fathers receive welfare, even though twice that number are in poverty. No one knows why. But "welfare was designed for women and children," says Richard Ferreira, a policy analyst at the American Public Welfare Assn., a coalition of state welfare agencies. "Single fathers are an issue that just doesn't come up."

The child-support system doesn't seem to work well for men, either. Courts often ask noncustodial mothers to pay less than noncustodial fathers because women tend to earn less than men. However, Meyer's study of Wisconsin court records found that nearly half of custodial fathers who had won a court order received nothing, compared with 29% of mothers. The reasons for this are not clear.

Other studies suggest that some men may be struggling to get by. A 1991 survey in Colorado found that 58% of custodial fathers who didn't get a court order for child support said they needed the money, compared with 20% of single mothers. "In the past, women without custody escaped child support altogether," says Jessica Pearson, director of the Center for Policy Research, a Denver-based group that conducted the Colorado study. "That's less true now, but there's still a differential based on gender."

In recent years, hundreds of men's rights groups have sprung up to offer legal and emotional support to divorcing men. And some companies are trying to gear work/family programs to men as well as women. Overall, single mothers remain a larger issue. But as the ranks of single dads grow, their problem may acquire a similar urgency.Aaron Bernstien in New York


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