Jesus Benitez made some mistakes. At 17, he dropped out of high school as a senior when he became a father to Mason, now 6. He had otherwise mostly stayed out of trouble, but he realized that earning $200 as a cashier at a store near his home in the Bronx offered no real future for him or his son, for whom he is the primary caretaker.
"I always worked in a kitchen, and I was tired of it," said Benitez. "The most I thought about was doing better working in a hotel."
But now the 23-year-old son of a Mexican immigrant single mom is hoping to graduate in December with an associate's degree in philosophy, and transfer to a bachelor's program in one of New York's public colleges. He also works as a counselor in a mentoring program helping students like him stay in school.
Most importantly, he said the emotional detachment he felt from his son a few years ago has been replaced with deep engagement, and the pair often go on walks and compare notes on what they're learning in school.
"I prepare little topics on philosophy for us to talk about," he said.
To some people, a transformation like Benitez's may seem too good to be true. But his circumstances as a single father have become more common in the past few decades. The number of households headed by single parents has increased dramatically in the past half-century, fourfold for single moms and ninefold for single dads, for a total of more than 4.5 million households headed by single parents around the country.
Even though we continue to think that the ideal family structure to provide kids with the resources and focus they need to succeed in life includes two married parents, American families have been reshaped dramatically over the past half century by divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation. Fewer than half of kids in the U.S. live with two married heterosexual parents, compared with 73 percent in 1960.
This is why some programs aimed at giving their parents tools that can help them improve their children's educational, and eventually economic, success are zeroing in on single parents and their specific challenges.
"I want to do my thesis on Jean-Paul Sartre's "˜existence precedes essence.' Because to me, that's my story. To me, it means you have the power to change your destiny." —Jesus Benitez
Many efforts are focused on single mothers, who are often assumed to be the most likely heads of households in single-parent homes. But one program, the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, works with young fathers, mostly men of color. The Academy operates on the belief that this is a population which has been sorely neglected in the move to help families improve their circumstances. Benitez went through the 16-week program, which has graduated 178 men since 2012 and has funding through 2019.
"Many of these dads haven't had the support they needed to feel part of their families or to provide for their children," said Raheem Brooks, who directs the program.
For many young fathers like the ones who participate in the Academy, between the ages of 18 and 24 and mostly low-income and black or Latino, the most common difficulties to overcome to support their families financially and emotionally have to do with their lower educational attainment. Overall, 19 percent of single dads don't have a high school diploma, compared with 10 percent of married dads. There's also a higher likelihood that they have been involved with the criminal-justice system; 30 percent of African-American men and 26 percent of Latinos have been arrested by age 18, compared with 22 percent of white men.
The Academy's program addresses both the practical and the less tangible issues these young men have. Three days a week, from morning through mid-afternoon, the participants work on education in the morning—many participants dropped out of high school, often as a result of becoming fathers, like Benitez. So far, 61 enrollees have gotten their high school equivalency degrees, with more than a dozen going on to college, in part inspired by the program's on-campus setting.
"It makes a big difference for them to be on a college campus and to imagine that they too can be college students," said Brooks. "They can begin to imagine their future."
But beyond the academic content, and workshops on financial literacy and health, Brooks feels the biggest impact of the program happens in the afternoons, when the young men have guided discussions about parenting and their own experiences, including how many did not have a present and involved father.
"They speak about their pain and relate to each other," said Brooks. "And then they take it back to their communities and friends, have conversations with girlfriends and their kids' moms; they mentor each other."
Benitez said that the program was key in getting him to speak about his feelings. "I was always more of an observer, and learned about family by watching my grandfather," he said. "But now I understand the importance of opening up communication, because the main connection you have to your son or daughter is emotional."
Once these young men learn new ways to see themselves, and to relate to each other, their kids and their families, they are in a better position to overcome educational and economic disparities between themselves and married parents. Plus, some recent research on single parents, and on single dads, is challenging the notion that the disadvantages associated with who they are inevitably translate into disengaged parenting or bad outcomes for their kids that can be traced to family structure.
For example, some studies say that families with two parents in which there is a lot of conflict do worse than kids in families with single, but stable, parents. And a 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that African-American fathers had the highest rates of involvement with their kids compared with white or Latino dads when it came to everyday nurturing tasks such as bathing, dressing, or helping with homework on a daily basis.
"For low-income parents and single parents, it's harder to do the things that get their kids into better classrooms and better resources," said Stephanie Coontz, a sociologist who writes about changing American families. "They can't see what their options are because they are overwhelmed, but we blame that on the family formation."
For those motivated to improve their situation, said Brooks, the Academy's training can lead them to make concrete changes that ripple out—for example, spending more time with their kids and finding new activities to do with them. "Some report back that they are taking their kids to the museum, to a jazz concert," said Brooks. Those are the kinds of interactions that parenting experts say are the most meaningful for helping young kids develop socially and intellectually.
Benitez said that not only does he read more to his son, but he enjoys talking about the books more. "We just read A is for Activist, but I think I liked it even better than him," he said, laughing.
For Burns, the most essential element for success is a commitment to make changes, and consistency.
For Benitez, the tools he received at the Academy have opened up a whole new world, one he said he could not have imagined for himself.
"I want to do my thesis on Jean-Paul Sartre's 'existence precedes essence'," he said. "Because to me, that's my story. To me, it means you have the power to change your destiny."
This story is part of our Next America: Early Childhood project, which is supported by grants from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation.