The latest “report” from the Mississippi State Auditor’s office is not a well-researched policy memo with thought-out ideas for improving the state—it’s a poorly written piece of propaganda.

Dads Matter” outlines the purported costs to Mississippi taxpayers from “fatherlessness,” which is never defined but full of assumptions. The auditor’s team cites a U.S. Census Bureau statistic that more than 250,000 children in Mississippi live in households with an unmarried woman as the householder.

Using that number to represent fatherlessness is incredibly misleading. The number includes children of divorce who live primarily with their mothers, as well as children living with unmarried parents, and neither of those situations necessarily means that the children are fatherless.

The auditor’s team seems to be suggesting that marriage is what grants a man status as a father, an outdated idea that we thought had been left in the previous century. Importantly, being a “father” in contract alone does not equate to being an engaged parent; similarly, having a father that lives separately does not equate to being “fatherless.”

That’s just the beginning of the memo’s problems. It includes citations from groups like the Family Research Council, which is a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group. One of the memo’s central statistics (that 71% of high-school dropouts are fatherless) used to calculate the cost to taxpayers comes from the National Center for Fathering, which offers no dataset to support that particular statistic and currently has a Moderate Concern Advisory from the Charity Navigator.

The data used in State Auditor Shad White’s (pictured) August 2022 report on “fatherlessness” turns research and statistics into dangerous misinformation and lacks accurate historical context, Christine Dickason and Kaitlyn Barton write. Photo courtesy Shad White

And let’s be frank: The “math” used to calculate the $700-million estimate that the auditor’s team claims is the cost of fatherlessness is just wrong. In Figure 1, the arithmetic simply does not work. Even if the proportions were correct (which the evidence provided does not support), you cannot just multiply proportions with different measurement units all drawn from different years of data. Additionally, it is unclear what expenses were used to calculate the up-to-$57.5 million attributed to fatherless teenage mothers.

None of this is to suggest that engaged fathers are a bad thing. But to turn research and statistics into misinformation is dangerous. Plus, ignoring the historical context of today’s familial structure in the U.S., especially how a racially discriminating justice system has affected it, is deceptive. The whole report is a dog whistle, and the purposeful exclusion of race is manipulative.

Systemic Racism Divides Black Families

Decades of U.S. policy was specifically designed to break apart the Black family, policy that began during the practice of slavery but continues to this day. Scholars argue that the U.S. child-welfare system has continued the tradition of unjustly separating Black families as a means of control, and our system of mass incarceration has worsened the tearing apart of Black families. Black adults are incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of white adults due to a racist system built to control and repress Black bodies.

The memo’s main solution is increasing participation in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. The claim that JROTC participation breaks the cycle of fatherlessness is completely unsupported. In fact, a range of studies on the impact of JROTC participation finds mixed academic results, at best, with no evidence around how JROTC might break cycles of fatherlessness.

All the pearl-clutching about “broken homes” is a detractor from the real issues facing Mississippi.

“Ignoring the historical context of today’s familial structure in the U.S., especially how a racially discriminating justice system has affected it, is deceptive,” Christine Dickason and Kaitlyn Barton write. Photo by Depositphotos

Let’s talk about teenage pregnancy. While one risk factor associated with teenage pregnancy is living in a single-parent household, primary risk factors include growing up in poverty and low maternal educational achievement. Actions that can limit teenage pregnancies include comprehensive sex education, which is not required in Mississippi schools. And don’t forget: access to abortion can help young people make informed decisions about whether they want to become parents.

What about the costs of incarcerating people? With Mississippi ranked as the world leader in incarcerating people per capita, the state’s taxpayers spend a lot of money on keeping folks behind bars. But this occurrence is not an accident; in fact, it is a deliberate policy choice steeped in the racist histories we discussed earlier. We do not have to continue tearing families apart if we believe fathers are so important, but we choose to repeat the sins of our past over and over again.

State Auditor Shad White has doubled down on the report since its release, tweeting, “If you can’t identify the drivers of our biggest challenges, you’ll never fix them.” Precisely, Mr. White! We can agree that fathers are really important; however, this report is a distraction from years of bad policy—all under a Republican-led government—that has led us to this point.

It is a red herring that pulls our attention away from systemic issues plaguing the state.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Crirec, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and sources fact-checking the included information to [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

Christine Dickason is pursuing her PhD in education policy at Vanderbilt University. Kaitlyn Barton is a native Mississippian who currently works as a dean of instruction in Houston, Texas. They both graduated from the University of Mississippi’s Lott Leadership Institute and Honors College in 2015.