Young, minority, and poorly educated fathers in fragile families have little capacity to support their children financially and are hard-pressed to maintain stability in raising those children. In this article, Robert Lerman examines the capabilities and contributions of unwed fathers, how their capabilities and contributions fall short of those of married fathers, how those capabilities and contributions differ by the kind of relationship the fathers have with their child's mother, and how they change as infants grow into toddlers and kindergartners.
Unwed fathers' employment and earnings vary widely among groups but generally rise over time. At the child's birth, cohabiting fathers earn nearly 20 percent more than noncohabiting unwed fathers, and the gap widens over time. Still, five years after an unwed birth, the typical unwed father is working full time for the full year. Although most unwed fathers spend considerable time with their children in the years soon after birth, explains Lerman, over time their involvement erodes. Men who lose touch with their children are likely to see their earnings stagnate, provide less financial support, and often face new obligations when they father children with another partner. By contrast, the unwed fathers who marry or cohabit with their child's mother earn considerably higher wages and work substantially more than unwed fathers who do not marry or cohabit. These results suggest that unwed fathers' earnings are affected by family relationships as well as their education and work experience.
Lerman notes that several factors influence the extent to which unwed fathers stay involved with their children. Better-educated fathers, those who most identify with the father's role, and those with good relationships with the child's mother, are most likely to sustain a relationship with their children. Some studies even find that strong child support enforcement increases father involvement. For many years, policy makers approached the problem of noncustodial, unwed fathers on a single track—by trying to increase their child support payments. Today's policy makers are recognizing the limits of that strategy. New programs focus on improving the relationship and communication skills of unwed fathers. In addition, targeted training programs, such as apprenticeships, enable unwed fathers to earn a salary while they learn skills.