Kids need dads.
Not "male role models." Not "masculine influences." Not "Y chromosome facilitators." Dads.
And, as another Father's Day arrives, it's hard to overlook their absence in many American households. One out of three children born today is illegitimate, U.S. government figures show. Less than half of all teen-agers live with their fathers. In 1960, fewer than one in 10 children lived in a single-parent home. By 2000, it was about one in four.
How much of a difference do these absent fathers make? Plenty. Survey data from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, show that teen-agers without a dad around are almost twice as likely to be depressed as teen-agers from an intact married family. They are more than four times as likely to be expelled from school and three times as likely to repeat a grade. Drug and alcohol abuse is much more common. On top of that, they are also more likely to have sex before they are married-setting the stage for yet another fatherless generation.
Life without a father also is a good way to miss out on the American Dream. The poverty rate for all children in married-couple families is roughly 7 percent, NIH data show. By contrast, the poverty rate for all children in single-parent families is 51 percent.
Marriage is also the safest place for women and children. Justice Department figures show that mothers who never marry are abused at three times the rate of married, separated and divorced couples combined. Children are six times more likely to be abused in a step-family, 13 times more likely in a family with a single mother living alone, 20 times more likely in a cohabiting natural family, and 33 times more likely if they live with their natural mother and a boyfriend who isn't their father.
These are just a few good reasons why Congress should include marriage-education programs as it considers renewing the country's welfare laws. Six years ago, the nation took a giant leap forward by requiring people to work or get job training for benefits. This common-sense solution to decades of dependency and hopelessness would, as President Clinton said at the time, "change welfare as we know it."
He was right. Instead of just getting a check, welfare recipients had to earn one. That simple policy change made all the difference in millions of people's lives and for their children as well. According to the latest Census Bureau figures, there were 4.2 million fewer people living in poverty in 2001 than 1996. Also, some 2.3 million fewer children live in poverty in 2001 than in 1996-with the greatest gains made among black children.
But the work necessary to repair the damage caused by the Great Society's good intentions isn't over yet. Congress must take another step to heal welfare's social wounds: by funding marriage-education experiments. To do so will lead (one hopes) to a prolonged national discussion on the benefits and the need for marriage.
A frank discussion would emphasize the fact that men need marriage as much as women and children do. Study after study shows that married men earn more money, live longer and are healthier than their bachelor friends. They are less likely to become alcoholics, criminals or drug addicts. And if that's not enough, married men also report having more and better sex than single guys. "Men who choose to remain single spend most of their evenings at home, eating Cheez Dip and watching wrestling on television," sociologist James Q. Wilson once wrote.
So marriage is more than a good idea. It is, hands down, the best way to ensure that mothers, fathers and children reach their full potential and have the best opportunity to achieve happiness. And by supporting the president's marriage-education initiative, Congress can help many more children truly have a "Happy Father's Day."
Patrick Faganis the William H.G. Fitzgerald fellow in family and cultural issues at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy institute.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire