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Farewell to the Family?

In response to:

Farewell to the Family? from the March 18, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

I read Andrew Hacker’s “Farewell to the Family?” with interest and with gratitude. Gratitude, because I was in the middle of preparing an article about the good daddy/bad mommy syndrome in American films and Mr. Hacker provided me with a surprising bit of information. “As it turns out, the number of solo fathers actually declined from 716,000 in 1970 to 609,000 in 1980.” As it really turns out, this statistic is surprising because it is inaccurate.

A few days after reading Mr. Hacker’s piece, which I clipped and filed since it contained such an apparent wealth of information, I ran across a syndicated article by Marc Leepson of the Washington-based Editorial Research Reports entitled “Divorce: the Rise of Joint Custody.” According to Mr. Leepson, “The US Census Bureau reports that there were 666,000 single fathers in 1981, up from 332,000 in 1971.” Puzzled, I called Mr. Leepson who had also seen Mr. Hacker’s article and was equally puzzled by your reviewer’s figure for 1970 (no problem with the 1980 figure), as his research placed the number of single fathers for that year at 345,000. His source was the same as that cited by Mr. Hacker: the US Census Bureau Current Population Reports (Series P-20), “Household and Family Characteristics.”

So I made another call, this one to the horse’s mouth. Steve Rawlings of the US Census Bureau confirmed that Mr. Leepson’s figure was correct for 1970, Mr. Hacker’s wrong….

Be that as it may, Mr. Hacker’s piece did include at least one piece of misinformation, which makes this reader, at least, uneasy about the many other figures cited therein. In one sense, the statistics on “solo fathers” remain small potatoes, since the percentage of single-parent homes headed by women is the same today as it was 10 years ago (roughly 89 percent). Still, some of those 666,000 single fathers, thinking they were part of a mini-trend, must have found Mr. Hacker’s figures curious, which brings me to the main point here: wasn’t anybody in the NYRB editorial room curious about Mr. Hacker’s figures?

I liked Mr. Hacker’s piece enormously. I’m sorry I can’t use it as a reference source.

Sharon Mayberry

Northampton, Massachusetts

Andrew Hacker replies:

Karen Lindsey must face up to the implications of her argument. Rather than families based on “blood and marriage,” she would have us weld friends into “chosen families.” In addition, we can choose children not our own for “major relationships,” at least if we find some with whom we get on well. Of course the problem with having children of your own is that there is very little choice: you are stuck with them no matter how they turn out. Not to mention the kids themselves, who might prefer another set of parents. On the other hand, were Lindsey to propose some clearing-house arrangement, parenthood could be compatible with her scheme.

In the part of my review to which Vivian Cadden refers, I was talking about working wives: that is, earners in two-income families. And I pointed out how few of them held full-time jobs. People who work part time or for short-term periods cannot expect a generous rate of pay. I agree that women who make a full work commitment get less than they deserve. But that is because men take too much of the wage-and-salary pie. If working wives want more, they might consider suggesting that their husbands should get less.

Sharon Mayberry makes a serious charge. In my review I did indeed point out that the number of men raising children on their own had “actually declined from 716,000 in 1970 to 609,000 in 1980.” This is in fact the case and the Census is my source.

Mayberry wonders where I got the 1970 figure of 716,000. True, it was not in the Census report, Household and Family Characteristics (P-20, No. 366), which dealt with conditions in 1980. While that study provided some 1970 comparisons in its introductory section, none singled out solo fathers. My source, rather, was the 1970 Census volume, Family Composition (PC2-4A), where Tables 4 and 8 detail the number of households with “male heads” in which there were “related children under eighteen,” and the man was widowed, divorced, or single, or married but with his “wife absent.” The report lists 716,216 such households in 1970, which I rounded to 716,000.

I am surprised that Mr. Rawlings of the Census failed to confirm this statistic, as I am sure he has a copy of PC2-4A by his desk. However, I will admit to one liberty which I took because of space constraints. Of the 716,216 men raising youngsters, 141,921 were actually uncles or other persons related to the children; i.e., surrogate fathers. But these men are in the same situation as natural fathers, and I felt it would be improper to leave them out. Even if we do, that leaves 574,295 natural fathers raising children in 1970.

My statistics were triple-checked prior to publication, and all of them are accurate. I assure Sharon Mayberry that she can use them, as others have, with complete confidence.

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