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South Africa is a fatherless country. According to StatsSA, around 42% of children lived only with their mothers. Another 21% did not live with either of their parents. Fewer than 4 in 10 children live with their father.
Why is this? Meet Sthe. He is a father of two and says: ‘I am supposed to be living with them and their mother, but now I am what you call...not married, I have not yet had enough money to get married because of work, I don’t work.’
Sthe is a good example of why blaming men for their absence is unhelpful. The first thing to keep in mind when tackling fatherlessness is its definition. In a recent book chapter, UCT and Stellenbosch psychologists Mandisa Malinga and Kopano Ratele explain that fatherhood varies across different cultures, historical periods, and socioeconomic contexts. In some cultures, the role emphasises the traditional breadwinner model, while others recognise a more active, caregiving role. Some communities view fatherhood as extending beyond one’s biological children to include extended family and the broader community, reflecting a collective approach. And its meaning continues to evolve, adjusting and readjusting to the changing socioeconomic landscape. Poverty caused by high unemployment rates – as Sthe’s story suggests – further complicates this dynamic.
These socioeconomic factors largely explain the declining marriage rates, especially among black South Africans. Customs like lobola – or bridewealth – or inhlawulo – a financial offering for unplanned pregnancies or when marriage is not intended – have deep cultural roots, changing slowly. As these ancient customs interact with the changing socioeconomic environment of the last three decades, they create a complex web of expectations and obligations that can be challenging to navigate, particularly for those facing economic hardships. As Sthe’s story illustrates, his desire for marriage and connection with his children is thwarted by his lack of employment and financial resources, not a lack of will or responsibility.
Sthe is one of several men interviewed by Malinga and Ratele. Of the men studied, 67% did not live with their children, reflecting the StatsSA numbers. Even those who shared residence often spent little time at home due to looking for work. Participants in their study emphasised that fathers’ primary responsibility is to provide for their children’s material needs, including food, clothing, shelter, and education. The expectation that men should financially support their children and families remains a central aspect of fatherhood, even as perceptions of fatherly roles may change over time and across different cultural contexts.
But the study also highlights that the participants, many of whom were poor or unemployed, valued physical presence, love, and support for their children. While some past reports have criticised or even pathologised black fatherhood, as Malinga and Ratele note, their findings challenge stereotypes of poor and unemployed men as ‘bad fathers’ and illustrate the complexity of fatherhood, where financial provision, love, and physical presence are valued but not always attainable due to socioeconomic circumstances.
While the personal costs are undeniably high, what are the societal costs of these fatherless households? One new book attempts to do so. In The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, US economist Melissa Kearney shows how the most significant impacts of marriage are, in fact, economic, offering a host of benefits not only for married adults but for their children. As the decline in marriage continues, the compounding effects on inequality and opportunity grow increasingly dire. Their effects include not just children’s behavioural and educational outcomes, but a surprisingly devastating effect on adult men, whose role in the workforce and society appears intractably damaged by the emerging economics of America’s new social norms.
Surprisingly few South African economists have studied this phenomenon, but that is probably because isolating a father’s absence as a causal factor in various social outcomes is difficult. Existing studies often point to correlations between fatherless households and adverse outcomes such as lower educational achievement, increased risk of criminal behaviour, and emotional challenges among children. However, these correlations don’t necessarily imply causation. The absence of a father may be linked to other underlying socioeconomic factors, as in the example of Sthe, which might be the actual driving force behind these observed consequences.
So how can we determine the causal impact? If only we could stumble upon a society where numerous fathers were somewhat arbitrarily separated from their families.
That is precisely what economic historians Yannick Dupraz and Andreas Ferrara, the authors of a recent working paper, have found. They examine one of the most lethal conflicts in the history of the United States: the American Civil War, during which more than 720,000 soldiers died out of a population of 31 million. At a time when US GDP per capita was around $4500 (in 2011 $ terms; SA is today at $12 000), Dupraz and Ferrara study the repercussions for the 363,000 children who were left to grow up after the Civil War without a father.
The authors find that children who lost their fathers had between 2 and 11% lower occupational income scores in 1880, were more likely to be farmers, marry earlier, and less likely to migrate long distances. In short: the children of deceased fathers were poorer than those who had not lost a father. Wealth seems to mitigate some of the impacts, meaning children from wealthier households were less likely to financially feel the shock of losing a father. But the evidence is clear: for most children, the adverse effects of losing a father appeared long-lasting, extending to later stages of life.
Of course, there is still a question of causality. Perhaps it was the poorest soldiers that were most likely to die, and so it was mostly poor families that lost a father. The authors find a clever way around this. Instead of individual deaths, they used the mortality rate in the soldiers’ regiments (the groups they fought with). They argued that things like how long a regiment was active and military strategies would affect this rate, but not personal things like the soldiers’ wealth or occupation. They even looked at old battle maps to show that where regiments fought did not depend on who was in them.
All in all, then, this is the clearest evidence to causally show that fathers do matter in determining children’s future outcomes.
Back to the present. How do we confront the growing challenge of fatherlessness in South Africa today, a trend that is taking a devastating toll on the nation’s children? While customs like lobola and inhlawulo might exacerbate father’s inability to live with their children, the answer lies in tackling the lack of employment opportunities forcing so many men away from their families.
And unemployment is indeed one area many economists have worked on. Creating jobs is not impossible. We know what to do and how to do it. But it requires policy commitments from a government that itself has abandoned its role as caregiver.
An edited version of this article was first published on News24. Image created with Midjourney v5.2.
The subject of this post is timely. This past Wednesday, Helanya and I joyfully welcomed a baby girl into our family. She is truly a blessing. We extend our deepest gratitude to the medical team at Stellenbosch Mediclinic for their exceptional dedication and professionalism throughout the past week.