Growing up without a father—whether that’s due to divorce, a nonmarital birth, or a father’s death—is associated with a host of negative effects. But given that children from low-income families, for instance, are more likely to live apart from their father in the first place, it can be hard to tell to what extent an absent father causes the problems that father absence is associated with, and to what extent other factors related to both family structure and child outcomes (like household income) are to blame.
Researchers Sara McLanahan, Laura Tach, and Daniel Schneider published a paper last year on exactly this problem. They reviewed 47 studies that used a variety of methods designed to uncover the causal effects of father absence, such as lagged dependent variable models, natural experiments, and individual fixed effects models. Here’s what they found across a variety of domains.
Education: Although father absence did not seem to have consistent effects on children’s cognitive test scores, which are “more difficult to change than noncognitive skills and behaviors,” there is consistent evidence that father absence lowers children’s educational attainment and decreases the likelihood that they will graduate from high school. Workers without high school diplomas experience very high levels of unemployment and make less money than more educated workers, so failing to finish high school places young people at a major disadvantage in life.
Mental Health: Four of six relevant analyses demonstrate “a negative effect of parental divorce on adult mental health,” and 19 of 27 analyses on delinquency and negative “externalizing” behaviors “found a significant positive effect of divorce or father absence on problem behavior for at least one comparison group.” In addition, five of six studies on substance use suggest father absence affects their children’s likelihood of smoking cigarettes and using drugs and alcohol. The authors write that “recent research shows that social-emotional skills play an important role in adult outcomes” such as educational attainment, family formation, and labor market success, so the effect of father absence on mental health and social skills has implications even beyond children’s personal happiness.
Labor Force: McLanahan and her colleagues found few studies on how father absence affects children’s employment and income in adulthood. The handful of analyses they did find are not entirely comparable; however, some of their findings were consistent. “Divorce was associated with lower levels of employment” in two studies, and in two other studies there were “higher levels of labor force inactivity among those who experienced divorce in early childhood.” In a fifth study, growing up with stepparents and with a single divorced mother had negative effects on occupational status, while growing up with a single widowed mother was not a disadvantage relative to growing up with stably married parents.
Family Formation and Stability: As with labor force outcomes, the coauthors found few rigorous studies of family formation among those who grew up fatherless. The three relevant studies on how father absence affects children’s chances of marriage came to varying conclusions; however, two analyses on the influence of father absence on early childbearing show a positive association between the two.
In short, while selection definitely plays a role in the association between family structure and child outcomes, father absence does have lasting, causal effects on children’s life outcomes.