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2016’s Best and Worst States for Working Dads

wallethub dads photo

By Richie Bernardo

Male parenting is not what it once was. Fatherhood has long abandoned its 1960s definition. Back then, families relied on a single income — that of the dad, who spent much of his week at work while the missus stayed home to care for the kids and handle the chores. Today, 60 percent of family households depend on two incomes. And the contemporary dad no longer fits neatly into the standard of the married male breadwinner and disciplinarian.

Regardless of the changing identity and priorities of the modern dad, fatherhood remains an undisputedly tough job. And a father’s ability to provide for his family is central to his role. In fact, nearly 93 percent of dads with kids younger than 18 were employed in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But some dads — those who live in states where economic opportunity abounds and quality of life is emphasized —have it better than others.

In light of Father’s Day, WalletHub analyzed the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia across 20 key metrics that collectively speak to each area’s work-life balance, health conditions, financial climate and child-rearing environment for working dads. Our data set ranges from the unemployment rate for dads with kids younger than 18 to male life expectancy to day care quality. 

As the contemporary working dad faces increasing challenges in his role as parent and provider, we asked a panel of experts to weigh in on the most important issues.

Beth K. Humberd
Assistant Professor of Management and Associate in the Center for Women & Work at University of Massachusetts Lowell

What are the biggest issues facing working dads today? 

In a sense, working dads today are facing some of the same struggles that women have faced in the past, but in reverse: women always had legitimacy at home, and struggled to gain legitimacy in the workplace. Men have always had legitimacy in the workplace, but working dads today are now faced with seeking legitimacy in their roles as parents – this is in the eyes of organizations, society, as well as themselves. 

In our own research we’ve found that even though many working fathers today desire to be more involved in caregiving and home life, they recognize that in practice, they often fall short. This is not necessarily the fault of individual men themselves, but rather the competing expectations that men face today with regards to traditional “breadwinning” and more recent expectations of “involved fathering.” Driven by women’s increased presence in the labor force, and the rise in dual-career couples, expectations for fathers are shifting from what they were 20-30 years ago. Fathers today – particularly those in dual-career couples – are expected to be more involved with caring for children; yet at the same time, traditional gender role norms – which associate men with work and women with home life – still persist and are resistant to change. These are the competing expectations that working fathers are grappling with today. 

In practice, this leads to some confusion for men in terms of how they should behave at work, with respect to family commitments. For example – many more organizations today are offering paternity leave than ever before. Yet, we also know that just because an organization offers a formal paid leave for fathers, this doesn’t mean that fathers are encouraged to use it. In fact, research has found that in many organizations, fathers face a stigma for utilizing some or all of the paternity leave they are offered; in other words, the formal policy exists, but the informal cultural norms encourage it not to be used. This is just one example of the practical issues that arise when working dads today are caught between competing expectations. Companies espouse that their family-friendly policies are gender-neutral, but in practice, this is often not the case. 

How can young fathers find the balance between career and family? 

A simple first step is to talk about the struggles they’re facing. In our research, many working fathers commented on how useful it was to share stories with other co-workers in similar situations; yet for men this is not often the norm in the workplace. The more fathers that are open to talking about it, the more those informal cultural norms will shift. In our work, we of course put much of the onus on organizations to encourage this – walk the walk around family leave policies instead of just talking the talk; set up space for working fathers to support one another; and perhaps most importantly, the leaders of today’s organizations – who continue to be predominantly men – need to model this behavior. When the CEO is leaving early to attend his child’s sporting event, he can sneak out quietly; or he can share this with those around him, as an example that being a good worker does not mean no time for family involvement. 

At a general level, finding balance between career and family is a struggle that all working parents today face. While the ideal goal would be for organizations and overall norms of work to shift (see recent conversations on our culture of overwork and expectations of ideal workers!), in the meantime, working parents need to seek out organizations that work for them – organizations that allow individuals to feel successful in both important domains of life. It’s easier said than done, but thankfully, we are seeing some strong examples of cultures in which this is possible.