YOUNG fathers who fail to find work often abdicate all parental duties, consigning a rising number of children to poverty and a single-parent upbringing, according to a report released yesterday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
In its sixth annual ''Kids Count Data Book,'' a national and state-by-state profile of child well-being, the foundation uses the latest government data to illustrate what Douglas Nelson, executive director, calls ''the powerful, fundamental, and inescapable correlation'' between declining earnings for young men and the increases in unwed parenting.
More than 19 million American children live in mother-only families, the study shows. That represents a fourfold increase in the past four decades, from 6 percent in 1950 to 24 percent in 1994. In a parallel trend, the percentage of 25-to-34-year-old men with earnings below the poverty level for a family of four more than doubled since 1970, increasing from 14 percent to 32 percent.
Noting the close link between income and marriage for men, Mr. Nelson says, ''Almost no one volunteers for roles and duties they cannot fulfill. The simple truth is that disadvantaged young men who do not have the education, skills, or opportunity to succeed in today's economy are not prepared to contribute as providers, protectors, and mentors to their children.''
Not all statistics in the report are gloomy. In five critical areas, children's well-being improved between 1985 and 1992. The infant-mortality rate declined by 20 percent, dropping from 10.6 deaths per 1,000 live births to 8.5. The child-death rate also fell, from 33.8 in 1985 to 28.8 in 1992 -- a 15 percent decline.
In addition, the proportion of high-school dropouts among 16-to-19-year-olds fell by 11 percent.
But five other benchmarks of well-being showed deterioration. Among them, the share of low birth-weight babies increased by five percent. The number of youths arrested for violent crime jumped 58 percent. And the violent-death rate for teens rose by 6 percent.
Yet, the statistics about family formation show the most disturbing changes, Nelson says. The rate of unmarried teens having children rose 44 percent, and the percentage of single-parent families increased by 17 percent. Children growing up without fathers are five times more likely to be poor and almost 10 times more likely to be extremely poor. ''If we improve everything else but leave fathers on the margins of the economy, they're going to continue to be on the margins of their families.''
To improve the economic prospects for disadvantaged young men, Nelson says, the nation must replace neglect with new strategies in four key areas:
* Review social and public policies that discourage fathers' involvement with their children.
* Replicate successful community programs that are helping absent fathers reconnect with their children.
* Reinforce the importance of fatherhood by rethinking messages in the media, families, and public schools.
* Finally, begin longer-term policies to assure that more young men have enough education, training, and skills to be responsible providers for their children.
''We really need to invest in more capable families if we're going to provide for significantly better prepared and healthier kids,'' Nelson says. ''That remains, to me, the critical social issue.''