Stay-At-Home Dads On The Rise, And Many Of Them Are Poor

Jun 5, 2014
Originally published on June 30, 2014 9:38 am

The number of dads staying at home with their children has nearly doubled in the past two decades, and the diversity among them defies the stereotype of the highly educated young father who stays home to let his wife focus on her career.

A new study from the Pew Research Center finds that almost 2 million fathers are at home, up from 1.1 million in 1989. Nearly half of those men live in poverty.

"The largest share of stay-at-home dads are actually home because they're ill or disabled," says Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher at Pew. "So that could be contributing to their low income, obviously."

Another chunk of men say they're at home because they can't find a job.

"About 22 percent don't have a high school diploma," says Livingston, "and 36 percent have just a high school diploma but no college experience."

Still, the fastest-growing group among stay-at-home fathers is men who say they are home specifically to provide child care. Five percent said that in 1989, and 21 percent say it today.

Just half of stay-at-home fathers are white, and black dads are twice as likely as white men to be home with their children.

Mark Portis, who lives near St. Louis, is African-American and dropped out of high school in his junior year (he later got his GED). He has two young children with his wife, but he also has three older daughters he never lived with, he says. He never married their mothers.

When he finally did marry, he says he wanted things to be different.

"I've been a stay-at-home dad for ... six years," he says. His 6-year-old son is at camp, and his 3-year-old daughter is being fussy about lunch. "She wants candy," he says, laughing.

Portis used to be a manager in an auto parts shops, but his wife earned a lot more as an accountant. When they decided someone should stay home with the children, it made sense that it was him, he says.

"I love it," he says. "It's fun. I can be 110 percent involved in the kids and what they have going on."

Portis says his support group of full-time fathers is almost all white. But it doesn't surprise him that many stay-at-home dads are black.

"[For] a lot of African-Americans, that's how they were raised," he says. "Everybody has to work; everybody has to contribute. If you can't afford child care, one works nights, one works days and you're just kind of passing the kids back and forth."

"We have a long-standing tradition in African-American families of fathers doing a lot with their kids," says Scott Coltrane, the provost at the University of Oregon, who has studied fathers for three decades. Coltrane says black dads who live with their kids have always helped out more at home. And in today's labor market, they're also more likely to be out of a job.

"What's different is culturally now, most parents do a little bit of both," he says. "We expect women to work. We expect men to do more at home."

That, he says, is the biggest shift in the past few decades, and it's true for everyone, regardless of race.

Two million stay-at-home fathers is a much bigger number than the Census Bureau's number of 214,000. But the bureau's definition is extremely narrow, including only primarily married men who say they are home for the entire year specifically to care for family.

By contrast, Pew's latest report counts all fathers, married or not, who live with a young child and did not work at all in the past year.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The number of full-time stay-at-home fathers has nearly doubled in the past two decades - that's according to the Pew Research Center. The center counts 2 million such dads at home, and you may have heard this kind of headline about stay-at-home dads before - white-collar professional quits high paying job to watch the kids. But as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, the Pew study shows a much more varied reality.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: It seems every media report has him. You know, the lawyers say who signs on to be Mr. Dad so his globetrotting wife can boost her own career. In fact, Gretchen Livingston of the Pew Research Center finds nearly half of stay-at-home fathers live in poverty.

GRETCHEN LIVINGSTON: The largest share of stay-at-home dads are actually home because they're ill or disabled. So that could be contributing to their low income, obviously.

LUDDEN: Another chunk say they can't find a job. Although, the fastest-growing part - men making the choice to provide childcare. Pew finds just half of at-home fathers are white. Livingston says black dads are twice as likely to be home with their children.

LIVINGSTON: About 22 percent don't have a high school diploma and 36 percent have just a high school diploma but no college experience.

MARK PORTIS: My name is Mark Portis, I've been a stay-at-home dad for five - well, actually, six years.

LUDDEN: I catch Portis at his home outside St. Louis while his 6-year-old son is at camp and his 3-year-old daughter's having lunch.

PORTIS: OK, you don't have to eat it all, just leave it right there. She wants candy for lunch today.

LUDDEN: Portis actually has three older daughters he never lived with. He never married their mother's. He dropped out of high school and worked retail in auto parts. When he finally married, he wanted things to be different. Since his accountant wife makes a lot more than he did, he says it made sense for him to stay home.

PORTIS: I love it. It's just fun, it's nice, it's awesome. I can be 110 percent involved in the kids and what they have going on.

LUDDEN: Portis says his support group of full-time dads is almost all white, but it doesn't surprise him that many stay-at-home dads are black, like himself.

PORTIS: A lot of African-Americans - that's how they're raised. Everybody has to work, everybody has to contribute. And if you can't afford childcare, you know, one works nights, one works days and you're just kind of passing the kids, you know, back and forth.

SCOTT COLTRANE: We have a longstanding tradition in African-American families of fathers doing a lot with their kids.

LUDDEN: Scott Coltrane is provost at the University of Oregon and has studied fathers for three decades. He says African-American dads who live with their kids have always helped out more at home. In today's labor market, they're also more likely to be out of a job.

COLTRANE: What's different is culturally now, most parents do a little bit of both. We expect women to work. We expect men to do more at home.

LUDDEN: That, he says, is the biggest shift in the last few decades and it's true for everyone.

Now 2 million stay-at-home dads is a lot more than the Census Bureau counts. The bureau's definition is narrow. By contrast, Pew counts all dads - married or not - who live with a young child and did not work at all in the past year. Researcher Livingston says it's still not perfect.

LIVINGSTON: To be honest, we're probably excluding some dads who would count themselves as stay-at-home dads. Maybe they're doing freelance work, maybe they're doing part-time shift work.

LUDDEN: Defining stay-at-home dads is tough, she says, when everyone's definition of what moms and dads do is changing. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.