Of the many biographical details that shaped Barack Obama as a political figure, perhaps none is more prominent than the absence of his father during his upbringing. The president's public effort to understand Barack Obama Sr. began with the publication of his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, shortly after he finished his term as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. In the book, Obama describes how difficult it was to grow up without a relationship to his Kenyan father, the man who gave him a name and a heritage but was not around to help him navigate America's complicated racial divide. In The Audacity of Hope, written after he became a senator, Obama describes his own struggles as a political father who is often physically separated from his family.
At the height of the Democratic primary in 2008, Obama gave a Father's Day address at a predominantly black Chicago church. Single-parent homes are more common in the black community, and his speech encouraged young men to grow up and to take responsibility for their children. "We need to show our kids that you're not strong by putting other people down -- you're strong by lifting them up," he said. "That's our responsibility as fathers." After the speech, the Rev. Jesse Jackson excoriated Obama for "talking down to black people."
Obama's rhetoric on fatherhood can sound a lot like the personal-responsibility talking points of many conservative black leaders. For white Americans, it can reinforce the notion that some problems are endemic to the black community -- and that if black fathers would live up to their responsibilities, the problems of black children would just go away.
But for many, Obama's speeches acknowledge a real problem: More than half of African American children are born to single mothers. Obama tells the black community they have the power to change this, a message that resonates because Obama's personal history gives him some authority to address the issue. Juan Williams, a National Public Radio news analyst, said in December that there's at least anecdotal evidence that Obama's life story is an inspiration for young black men. At a conference of three major black fraternities, Williams heard men say things like, "If Barack Obama, who came from a broken household, can do it, we can do it too."
Obama is careful to never say they can do it without help -- he regularly addresses how government can meet families halfway. The proposals he outlined in his 2008 speech on fatherhood -- better family-leave policies for workers, more job-training opportunities for fathers -- are designed to help parents, especially low-income ones. But exactly how absentee fathers factor into the cycle of poverty -- and whether encouraging their involvement should be an explicit goal of programs designed to help low-income communities -- is the subject of considerable debate. Research shows that the children of single parents are five times as likely to be poor, are more likely to become teenage parents themselves, have worse educational outcomes, and are more likely to end up in prison. Widely discussed studies have now shown that the way parents interact with their children before they reach kindergarten greatly affects how children do once they're there. The question, given all these facts, is whether simply encouraging absent fathers to get involved with their children is enough.
Last year, Obama addressed a group of community leaders, fathers, and children from schools near D.C. in a speech meant to kick off a national conversation on fatherhood. He noted that his accomplishments were due to the efforts of his mother and grandparents but added, "Despite all their extraordinary love and attention that doesn't mean I didn't feel my father's absence. That's something that leaves a hole in a child's heart that a government can't fill."
Indeed, Obama has never suggested it should, but he has acknowledged the government can encourage fathers to get more involved. This marks a slight departure from his predecessor. For George W. Bush and his fellow conservatives, involved fathers were important because nuclear families were important. Advocates for anti-poverty programs grew frustrated with Bush because both his rhetoric and his policies emphasized personal and familial responsibility, as if all poor families lacked were moral values. He allocated federal money to programs that promoted marriage, but the bill authorizing the funds did not use language that restricted their use for low-income families exclusively; they were open to anyone.
Now, under Obama, fatherhood programs and marriage initiatives are poised to get more funding. His 2011 budget allocates money under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, also known as welfare-to-work, for a new initiative intended to help parents with barriers to self-sufficiency. A parallel Obama effort, the "conversation on fatherhood," run by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships, targets Americans of all income levels but doesn't administer grant money.
By reorienting the intent of the fatherhood programs, Obama reinforces the idea that poorer families might benefit from them. In his budget, Obama also increases funding for other programs designed to help poor families, a step many liberals would applaud. But his funding for fatherhood and family programs concedes that his goal isn't just making poverty less devastating by providing steady child care, better health-care coverage, and more work-training options for low-income men and women. It emphatically states that the broad effort of reducing poverty is furthered by putting fathers back in low-income homes and helping couples stay married.
If his ultimate goal is indeed poverty reduction, not reinforcing "traditional" values, should Obama attempt to tackle poverty itself and trust that higher incomes will lead to more involved parenting? Or does he attack the symptom of low-income absentee fathers directly and hope their involvement will break the cycle of poverty? He seems to be trying to do both.
The role of fathers is a relatively new addition to the conversation about children and poverty. Since the Great Depression, government efforts to help the poor have mostly targeted poor mothers with young children. The Great Society legislation in the 1960s expanded those efforts to the poor in general, but much of the funding remained focused on mothers. As Rickie Solinger argues in her 1999 essay published in Whose Welfare?, single mothers were seen as psychically troubled and in need of help from the state.
By the 1980s and 1990s, however, unlimited welfare was seen as problematic. The Clinton administration made a push to get women off the rolls. One of the ways to do that was to increase the help women received from noncustodial fathers, primarily through enforcing child-support payments. But when agencies tried to track down fathers and get them to pay, they found that many men were unemployed or underemployed and unable to meet their obligations. Community groups that had already been working to help men get job training and steady employment now had the federal government's attention through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which was created by the 1996 welfare-reform bill.
While TANF made maintaining two-parent families a goal, its primary focus was economic support for low-income parents and their children. That focus changed in 2001, when Bush started the National Healthy Marriage Initiative, devoting $90 million to marriage-promotion programs. The funding was administered by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. And the programs -- which were essentially marriage-counseling sessions -- were based on the idea that declining marriage rates and ascending divorce rates were the source of society's problems and that promoting marriage would be the cure.
There is, as yet, no hard evidence that the programs work at reducing poverty. Groups that help coordinate these programs, like the National Fatherhood Initiative, cite many personal stories of couples who say the programs were helpful. It's easy to see how a forum in which husbands and wives can talk about their frustrations and problems as a couple make them feel better. It's harder to see how that may translate into food on the table and college tuition for their children.
But there are stories of people who say they benefit. Dawit Solomon, a 29-year-old who was raised by a single mother, finished a class last year that he says has changed his relationship with his 10-year-old son. Solomon's girlfriend got pregnant in his senior year of high school, and they did not marry. For most of his relationship with her and their son, Daquan, Solomon felt his main purpose was to pay child support. "I didn't feel like I didn't have responsibilities," he said. "I didn't know what it's like to be a dad."
After he fell behind on his child support, Solomon was ordered by the court to attend fatherhood classes with a group in Alexandria, Virginia. He could have stopped going after three classes but chose to finish the 12-week course and has emerged as its evangelist. "I was always angry at the system, felt like it was always unfair to the father," he said. That anger reached back into his relationship with his absent father, extended to his relationship with his son's mother, and refracted, he now feels, to affect the relationship he had with his son. He often saw Daquan on weekends but would plop him in front of a video game while he went about his business. The class taught him to let go of his anger and to spend time with his son.
Solomon's class used curriculum from the National Fatherhood Initiative, a group founded in 1994 that has helped shape the nationwide efforts to address fatherless families. A former president of the group, Wade Horn, was tapped by Bush to shape many of the ACF's healthy-marriage policies. Before joining the ACF, Horn wrote, "States should begin by eliminating systemic preferences that give advantages to single-parent families over two-parent, married families. But making welfare neutral when it comes to marriage is grossly insufficient." That children of single parents needed more help was irrelevant.
When Congress reauthorized TANF in 2006, it shifted away from promoting two-parent households as a means to help reduce poverty rates to promoting marriage as a goal in and of itself, setting aside $150 million for programs designed to encourage healthy marriages. (The grants were authorized for five years.) A 2006 statement from the ACF decries "divorce, cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock childbearing" before it even mentions low-income children. When children are mentioned, it's to note that the ACF already has contact with them through several poverty-reduction programs. The language that established the new fatherhood and marriage-promotion programs did not limit them to low-income families. They could be used by any father or couple.
And that's the problem, some community groups say. These programs weren't focused on addressing poverty, and they supplanted more practical efforts such as job training and job placement, which had to compete for funding. Groups that work directly with mothers and fathers of low-income children are split on whether the programs were helpful at all, according to a report from the Center for Family Policy and Practice. Many groups think the programs are beside the point: Low-income men have basic problems staying stably employed, housed, and fed. Even groups that felt the marriage programs were useful and helped their clients did not think they were important outside the context of job-training, skills-training, and other economic-support programs.
"I don't even want to judge whether or not an individual mother or father or person wants that kind of service or needs it or can benefit from it," says the center's co-director, Jacquelyn Boggess. "We all can benefit from that. But to actually take away the services that respond to economic insecurity and then put in the one about being a better spouse or parent. ... I can't see that as beneficial."
In the meantime, Erick King, who, along with his twin brother, created the fatherhood class in Alexandria, said the group is trying to get federal funding, but the signals from the federal government are ambiguous. The program has so far relied on private donations totaling about $100,000. King, 31, was inspired by his own troubled history with his father and his work as a juvenile probation officer. Through his work with juveniles in the court system, King has come to believe one of the primary reasons young people get in trouble is a lack of parenting at home. "It's the root of the problem," he says. "There's no substitute for the father being in their life. If that's the root cause, let's address it at the root cause."
King says the men come to the class with a range of experiences, but the absence of their own fathers is a commonality. Twenty-seven men graduated last year, the first year of the program's existence, and about 80 percent were referred through the court system because of child support or family court cases. The men ranged in age from their teens to their 60s and mostly represented the bottom of the income ladder, making no more than about $40,000 a year. The group uses a curriculum supplied by the National Fatherhood Initiative but also tries to respond to the needs of the men they meet, including job-placement programs. This year, meeting with job-assistance groups will be a requirement to pass. But graduating just means showing up and participating in most of King's classes, which involve sessions in which men talk about their relationships to their father, take their children on community outings, and hear lectures from domestic-violence experts. There is no nationally recognized fatherhood curriculum. And while King follows the men post-graduation by communicating with their caseworkers, it's too early to tell what kinds of outcomes programs like his will produce.
Obama's 2011 budget removes the $150 million marriage-promotion funding that started under Bush and creates a new program called the Fatherhood, Marriage and Families Innovation Fund backed by $500 million. The budget also extends TANF for a year, to the end of 2011, and increases the amount of funding for TANF and the agency that administers it, the Administration for Children and Families. It will probably take a generation to determine whether these programs really help reduce poverty, because such an assessment depends on children's outcomes in adulthood. The budget, though, does allow for some of the money to be used to evaluate fatherhood programs. The Department of Health and Human Services says the new fatherhood program will be a more comprehensive effort. The details, however, are still unclear.
Obama's other new effort, the conversation on fatherhood, will be run outside the ACF, through the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Even the office, a renamed expansion of one Bush founded, seems to have a different mission than that of its predecessor. Bush argued that faith-based groups, which have a long history of helping the needy in America, were unable to compete for federal grants with government agencies on a level playing field. Critics believed that funding faith-based groups robbed government programs of much-needed dollars and helped Bush funnel money to friends or programs that shared his moral views. Obama has said that, rather than helping faith-based groups to get more federal money, his office will listen to community groups about what needs they see on the ground and use that information to inform federal policy.
In The Audacity of Hope, Obama talks about how his own struggle to be a father without a model on which to base his relationship with his daughters is the same struggle faced by a new generation of fathers. He lays out a path for encouraging fathers' participation that strikes a note in the center: "Policies that strengthen marriage for those who choose it and that discourage unintended births outside of marriage are sensible goals to pursue." But he criticizes the conservative view that we should be attempting to return to a "bygone era" by making divorce difficult, strictly defining gender roles, and shaming those who practice sex outside of marriage and have children outside of wedlock. Instead, Obama encourages supporting community programs that provide complete sex-education and marriage-education workshops. "Expanding access to such services to low-income couples, perhaps in concert with job training and placement, medical coverage, and other services already available, should be something everybody can agree on," he writes. A member of Obama's faith-based council drew fire in May for saying the office should look beyond hetero-normative views of fatherhood, another sign the office is more about helping families, whatever their shape, and not about regulating values.
Not everyone agrees fatherhood programs should be part of the anti-poverty agenda, but at least Obama's approach acknowledges that men have problems separate from their ability to be marriage partners. For example, a 2006 TANF reauthorization bill Obama co-sponsored that never passed would have supplied money for job training for ex-offenders, men who often leave prison with child-support debt and have a harder time getting new jobs. That component was spun out to be part of the stimulus bill and funded with $15 million, and Obama's focus on jobs and unemployment in areas other than TANF is intended to help low-income families along with everyone else.
Roland Warren, the current president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, says Obama's focus on jobs might be the biggest change, but he hasn't lost sight of the importance of the relationships parents have. "I think, from a practical standpoint, funding for marriage is part of the mix," Warren says. "I haven't heard any discussion about not funding the marriage stuff."
The 2006 bill concedes the problems children have in single-parent homes, but it also acknowledges the role poverty might play in the creation of those homes, citing high rates of unemployment, low wages, and domestic violence as primary reasons marriages break up and fathers aren't involved in their children's lives. To that end, Obama's Department of Health and Human Services budget, the umbrella under which the ACF is funded, also provides money for researching the best early-childhood programs and the best ways to help low-income families become self-sufficient. It also provides community block grants to encourage better grocery stores to move into low-income areas and other programs that, if implemented, could make the job of being a low-income parent easier. It's classic Obama; it addresses a view that is, on its face, unobjectionable: It's a good thing for fathers to take responsibility for their children, develop nurturing relationships with them, and promote their positive growth. Then it acts on that view in a way that supports the practical goals of liberalism -- helping parents find jobs, expanding early-childhood programs, and rejuvenating the low-income rental market so they can provide the basics for their children.
In the first year of the Obama administration, when the TANF funding for marriage initiatives was still on autopilot, groups that work with fathers hoped Obama would push for his 2006 bill, which they found more sensible. Now those groups are figuring out how to react to Obama's proposals in his 2011 budget. The bill he co-sponsored in 2006 is still sitting in Congress, now sponsored by Sens. Evan Bayh, Blanche Lincoln, Tim Johnson, and Roland Burris, and went to the Senate Finance Committee before Father's Day. It has remained there and is now unlikely to move since TANF has another year before it needs to be addressed. Some of the changes it would have made are now moot, as long as Obama's budget passes. With other big legislative priorities sucking up oxygen, like health care and jobs, it's not certain how much attention it will get.
Still, because the details on the new program have yet to be hammered out, and all advocates have to go on is a paragraph in the budget and a brief statement from the Department of Health and Human Services, some look back at the way Obama has talked about fatherhood and poverty. Rhetoric on responsible fatherhood that has the potential to inspire is all well and good as long as there is money to help with the very real needs of the poorest families.
Meanwhile, Obama still leverages his personal story to try to inspire young men despite the hardships they've faced. At his 2009 Father's Day talk, Obama addressed the male students in the audience, acknowledging they might worry that they don't know how to be fathers if their own fathers were absent.
"Some of you might even use that as an excuse and say, well, if my dad wasn't around, why should I be," he said. "Let's be clear: Just because your own father wasn't there for you, that's not an excuse for you to be absent also. It's all the more reason for you to be present. There's no rule that says that you have to repeat your father's mistakes. Just the opposite: You have an obligation to break the cycle, and to learn from those mistakes, and to rise up where your own fathers fell short, and to do better than they did with your own children. That's what I've tried to do in my life."