American families will rally around dad this weekend amid a social landscape that is sharply divided: Fathers tend to be more active as parents than their male counterparts a generation ago, but more children than ever are growing up without a father living in their home at all.
These trends – moving in seemingly opposite directions – partly reflect changes that are splitting US society along lines of education and income.
Researchers say the institution of marriage is on much firmer footing among couples with college degrees and higher incomes than among working-class families with lower levels of education.
At the higher end of this demographic, fathers are becoming more engaged. But for a large portion of less-educated Americans, fathers are often absent.
The pattern is not new, but it appears to be continuing to grow. New polling results show the gap, with the Pew Research Center releasing the data this week under the headline, "a tale of two fathers."
"Fathers who live with their children have become more intensely involved in their lives, spending more time with them and taking part in a greater variety of activities," Pew researchers Gretchen Livingston and Kim Parker said in the report. But "more than one-in-four fathers with children ages 18 or younger now live apart from their children."
In 1960, only 11 percent of US children lived apart from their fathers. That share reached 27 percent in 2010, according to data from the National Survey of Family Growth, which the Pew Center analyzed and paired with its own poll results.
Among fathers who never completed high school, 40 percent live apart from their children, versus 7 percent for fathers who graduated from college. Some 44 percent of black fathers live apart from their children, versus 21 percent of white fathers, the poll found.
Mr. Wilcox sees "an erosion of good-paying, stable jobs for less-educated men." This has made many men less capable as family providers, and less attractive to women as a result, he says. The deep recession of 2007-09 only made an existing problem worse, leaving many working-age men on the economy's sidelines.
Socially, attitudes of Americans with moderate education, who have traditionally been conservative on marriage-related matters, appear to have become more socially permissive.
But Wilcox says that, perhaps surprisingly, highly educated Americans appear to be growing "more marriage-minded."
Highly educated Americans, he said in a report last year, adhere to an ethos of delayed gratification, in which the goal is a “success sequence” of education, work, marriage, and childbearing. That sequence makes a successful family life more likely.
At the same time, a decline in civic engagement, including things such as church-going, has hit poor and working-class neighborhoods particularly hard, Wilcox says.
Whatever the causes behind the recent trends, they have a big impact on children.
According to a survey by the National Survey of Family Growth, conducted mostly before the recession, a majority of fathers who live with their children engage multiple times each week in things like ferrying children to activities, talking with them about their day, helping them with homework, and eating meals together.
For fathers living apart from children, the level of involvement plunges. Only 16 percent have several meals a week with their son or daughter, for example.
The good news is that, on average, dads are living with their kids and spending more time with them.
In 1985, the typical father who lived with his children spent about three hours a week on child care, the survey found. By the time the latest recession began in 2007, that number had risen to 6.5 hours per week. By comparison, moms spend about 12.9 hours per week on child care, which is also a rise (from about nine hours in 1985).