Hard evidence: what sort of people are absent fathers?

Fathers stick around if they can afford to. Orlando Rob

Since the 1970s, family life in the UK has changed dramatically. Increases in relationship breakdown, remarriage and repartnering have seen us move away from the traditional, two-parent nuclear family and towards more diverse forms of family life.

As a consequence, there are more children living apart from a parent than ever before. ONS figures show that the number of single parent families has increased from 8% in 1971 to 26% in 2011. It is estimated that up to 97% of single parents are mothers, which means that a large number of fathers are non-resident.

Non-resident fathers are frequently described in negative terms, just last week the Conservative MP David Davis fell back on the old adage of “feckless fathers”. However very little is known about non-resident fathers. They are a difficult group to research as no data is systemically collected about them.

The assumed number of non-resident fathers is often based on inaccurate proxies using rates of lone motherhood. Using data from a representative UK-wide survey, information collected from non-resident fathers themselves, we have sought to provide an accurate picture of how many fathers are non-resident and what what sort of people they are.

Who are non-resident fathers?

ONS estimates show that more than 20 million men aged 16-64 were living in the UK in mid-2012. From our analysis 5% of men in the UK reported that they had a non-resident child aged under 16 years old, which equates to just under a million non-resident fathers

Of course non-resident fathers form a diverse cross-section of men, with a range of ages, ethnicities, relationship histories and economic situations. However, we found there are a number of key differences between those fathers who live with their dependent children and those who do not.

Non-resident fathers emerge as a more disadvantaged group than resident fathers. They are less likely to be in work, have educational qualifications and be a home owner. For example 25% of non-resident fathers have no qualifications and 17% are unemployed, compared with 17% and 7% of resident fathers, respectively.

Other research has shown that non-resident fathers have poorer physical and emotional well-being compared with resident fathers and men who don’t have children.

Fathers’ working status by whether or not they have non-resident children. Natcen

Our research shows that the ethnic background of fathers is significantly related to non-residency. Fathers from Asian backgrounds (Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani) are the least likely to be non-resident whereas Black Caribbean, mixed race and Black African fathers are the most likely. Whereas just 6% of Pakistani fathers and 7% of Bangladeshi fathers are non-resident, 32% of Black Caribbean, 21% of mixed race and 19% of Black Caribbean fathers have non-resident children.

It also appears that the more relationships that a father has had, the more likely he is to have non-resident children. Whereas 73% of resident fathers report that they have only been married once or cohabited with a partner for at least 6 months, only 32% of non-resident fathers said the same. Non-resident fathers reported a range of relationship histories. They are more likely than resident fathers to have had multiple relationships but also more likely to have had no relationships at all.

Keeping in touch

The vast majority of non-resident fathers maintain contact with their children, with 38% saying that they are in contact several times a week. Only 13% of non-resident fathers report that they never see their children. Again using ONS population estimates, this equates to just 129,000 fathers in the UK. Given the widely publicised Centre for Social Justice report earlier this year which used terms such as “man deserts” this figure is surprisingly low.

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Amount of contact non-resident fathers have with their children. Natcen

Several factors are related to whether a father is in contact with his non-resident children. Those with a second family and those in more difficult economic circumstances are less likely to maintain contact.

Money matters

The link between child support and contact is well-established but it is not straightforward and the direction of the relationship is not clear. Nevertheless, despite the lack of clarity on cause and effect, it is evident that non-resident fathers who are in contact with their children are more likely to provide financially for their non-resident children than those with no contact.

Amount of contact non-resident fathers have with their children, by whether they provide money for child support. Natcen

That said, there is a tendency to misreport on this issue. Resident parents often underestimate how much of a contribution the other parent makes, while non-resident parents overestimate levels of contact and child support.

The figures show that non-resident fathers are usually still very much a part of their children’s lives but that factors such as economic circumstances can have an impact on the extent of their contact. While the overall figures on contact are positive, more research is needed to unpick the reasons why some fathers are not in contact with their children and whether policy changes could be made to improve the situation.

Hard Evidence is a series of articles in which academics use research evidence to tackle the trickiest public policy questions.

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