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The number of full-time stay-at-home fathers has nearly doubled in the past two decades - that's according to the Pew Research Center. The center counts 2 million such dads at home, and you may have heard this kind of headline about stay-at-home dads before - white-collar professional quits high paying job to watch the kids. But as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, the Pew study shows a much more varied reality.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: It seems every media report has him. You know, the lawyers say who signs on to be Mr. Dad so his globetrotting wife can boost her own career. In fact, Gretchen Livingston of the Pew Research Center finds nearly half of stay-at-home fathers live in poverty.

GRETCHEN LIVINGSTON: The largest share of stay-at-home dads are actually home because they're ill or disabled. So that could be contributing to their low income, obviously.

LUDDEN: Another chunk say they can't find a job. Although, the fastest-growing part - men making the choice to provide childcare. Pew finds just half of at-home fathers are white. Livingston says black dads are twice as likely to be home with their children.

LIVINGSTON: About 22 percent don't have a high school diploma and 36 percent have just a high school diploma but no college experience.

MARK PORTIS: My name is Mark Portis, I've been a stay-at-home dad for five - well, actually, six years.

LUDDEN: I catch Portis at his home outside St. Louis while his 6-year-old son is at camp and his 3-year-old daughter's having lunch.

PORTIS: OK, you don't have to eat it all, just leave it right there. She wants candy for lunch today.

LUDDEN: Portis actually has three older daughters he never lived with. He never married their mother's. He dropped out of high school and worked retail in auto parts. When he finally married, he wanted things to be different. Since his accountant wife makes a lot more than he did, he says it made sense for him to stay home.

PORTIS: I love it. It's just fun, it's nice, it's awesome. I can be 110 percent involved in the kids and what they have going on.

LUDDEN: Portis says his support group of full-time dads is almost all white, but it doesn't surprise him that many stay-at-home dads are black, like himself.

PORTIS: A lot of African-Americans - that's how they're raised. Everybody has to work, everybody has to contribute. And if you can't afford childcare, you know, one works nights, one works days and you're just kind of passing the kids, you know, back and forth.

SCOTT COLTRANE: We have a longstanding tradition in African-American families of fathers doing a lot with their kids.

LUDDEN: Scott Coltrane is provost at the University of Oregon and has studied fathers for three decades. He says African-American dads who live with their kids have always helped out more at home. In today's labor market, they're also more likely to be out of a job.

COLTRANE: What's different is culturally now, most parents do a little bit of both. We expect women to work. We expect men to do more at home.

LUDDEN: That, he says, is the biggest shift in the last few decades and it's true for everyone.

Now 2 million stay-at-home dads is a lot more than the Census Bureau counts. The bureau's definition is narrow. By contrast, Pew counts all dads - married or not - who live with a young child and did not work at all in the past year. Researcher Livingston says it's still not perfect.

LIVINGSTON: To be honest, we're probably excluding some dads who would count themselves as stay-at-home dads. Maybe they're doing freelance work, maybe they're doing part-time shift work.

LUDDEN: Defining stay-at-home dads is tough, she says, when everyone's definition of what moms and dads do is changing. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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