On June 15, 2008 -- Father's Day -- Barack Obama gave a speech at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, recalling his own absent father and lamenting the rising number of absentee fathers in the black community. He declared that "we need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child -- it's the courage to raise one."
The speech was well received in most circles, but some viewed it with skepticism. Jesse Jackson was famously caught on a live mic at Fox News confiding that he thought Obama was "talking down to black folks." He expressed a not-uncommon sentiment that Obama was using black folks as a political foil to elevate his own status in the eyes of white voters, much the way Bill Clinton did when he criticized Sister Souljah during his 1992 campaign. Many conservatives actually agreed with Jackson that the speech was mere lip service. National Review blogger Kathryn Jean Lopez reacted a day later by writing, "Talk is cheap."
For years, conservatives have shrugged off public-policy solutions to black poverty, arguing that cultural problems with marriage and fatherhood are primarily to blame. Liberals, hobbled by a desire to avoid alienating black voters, failed to acknowledge their own public-policy failures and ensuing cultural problems as contributors to black poverty. In short, conservatives blame the breakdown of the black family, and liberals blame the breakdown of the system.
Neither explanation adequately explains the dilemma or provides for a solution, but together they effected a stalemate on an issue that remains a low priority in the minds of most lawmakers. John McWhorter, a self-identified centrist and fellow at the Manhattan Institute who sees fatherlessness as one of the causes of lingering poverty in the black community, was glad Obama gave the speech. "The sad fact is that fatherlessness does not stand out in the popular imagination as an emergency in the way that, say, poverty or Jim Crow did in the '60s," McWhorter says. No matter what the reaction, Obama's speech brought fatherlessness to the forefront of public debate.
Whatever the cultural or political reasons for Obama's high-profile Father's Day speech, behind the rhetoric is a new way of thinking about fatherhood. Obama is advocating for a specific agenda designed to remove barriers that discourage fathers from paying child support, eliminate policies that punish married couples who are working to get off public assistance, and grant public funding to proven nonprofit organizations that help men transition into better jobs, including those re-entering society from incarceration.
This agenda is catching on in Democratic politics beyond the Obama campaign. When the party's platform was released in August, it contained a brand-new plank devoted to fatherhood. This signaled a new approach for the Democratic Party -- while conservatives have argued that the root causes of poverty are basically cultural, liberals have argued that they are primarily economic. The fatherhood plank and the policy initiatives behind it belie the Democrats' new approach: using the bully pulpit to encourage responsible behavior while enacting a policy agenda to deal with the underlying economic problems behind absentee fatherhood.
Previous attempts at dealing with poverty had detrimental side effects on families. Before welfare reform in the 1990s, mothers received a 60-year open entitlement to public benefits, a policy that inadvertently discouraged fathers from sticking around. In 1996, the limit was changed to five years. "In the old days, which were not ideal, if you made a kid, you had to stick around in what may have been a bad marriage to raise them," says McWhorter. "After the '60s that was no longer necessary, but it left a new problem."
Democratic insiders point to the Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act, introduced this year by Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana and co-sponsored by Obama, as the policy vision behind the fatherhood plank of the Democratic platform. The bill has yet to make it out of the finance committee, but if it's enacted, it would represent a major step forward.
The legislation first seeks to remedy problems with child-support policy. One of the casualties of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 was two-thirds of the federal incentive payments to state child-support collection programs. The funds were allocated based on performance, so the more effective a state program was at collecting child support, the more money it received from the federal government. If a state did poorly, its funding would be cut. But after the 2005 legislation was passed, many state programs found themselves struggling to finance their collection programs as a result of the funding cuts.
As a result, states started taking more of the money paid into child support to meet their expenses. Vicki Turetsky of the Center for Law and Social Policy says that "poorer states are sending back three-fourths of their child-support payments" to recoup the federal government for money allocated for the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. What this means is that much of the money parents make to support their children ends up going to the federal government. Because child-support payments are collected directly from paychecks, this can be a powerful disincentive for low-income fathers to either quit their jobs or find work in the underground economy -- the nature of which can vary from construction work to the drug trade. In cases where fathers choose illicit work, children may find themselves without a father fairly quickly.
One of the major adjustments of Obama and Bayh's Responsible Fatherhood Act is that it prohibits state and federal government from taking money from child-support payments -- what is essentially a "tax" on a parents' earnings -- and ensures that all of it goes to the family. It also expands the Earned Income Tax Credit to provide an additional credit for non-custodial parents who keep up on their payments, thus encouraging fathers to keep legitimate jobs and avoid the underground economy.
Under this new legislation, rather than starving state and federal programs, child-support collections would save money for other public-assistance programs by helping lift families out of poverty (child support often makes up to 30 percent of a poor family's income, according to Turetsky). According to a 2007 study done by the Lewin Group, a health-care consulting firm, each dollar paid in child support from a family not on public assistance results in a benefit reduction of 19 cents in over five other public assistance programs, including housing, Social Security, TANF, Medicaid, and food stamps.
Previously, parents paying child support who were not on public assistance bore the financial weight of those who were. Their payments are "taxed" at a higher rate than those of families who are not on public assistance. The bill also removes TANF requirements that mean married couples have to work more hours than single parents to get the same amount of TANF funds, seeking to eliminate the disparity in participation rates.
In addition, the Obama-Bayh bill addresses the issue of incarceration. The legislation prevents the government from treating time spent in prison as "voluntary unemployment," a practice that can leave a parent re-entering society with a mountain of child-support debt based on his or her income prior to incarceration. The bill sets aside federal grants for transitional jobs and prisoner re-entry programs. The Justice Center, a think tank focused on criminal justice, estimates that more than 7 million children may have a parent in prison or jail, or under parole or probation supervision. The bill also requires each state to review and make adjustments for debt of men who were incarcerated or otherwise unemployed when the debt was accumulated.
Turetsky, who helped craft the Obama-Bayh bill, cautions that the first generation of re-entry programs that attempted to help former inmates transition back into society met with only "modest" success. "It worked, but there was trouble with employment," Turetsky says. She notes that the second generation of such programs, the ones that will be competing for grants if the bill passes, have met with better results by focusing more on job skills.
In essence, the bill removes institutional barriers that help keep non-custodial parents, usually fathers, from providing financial support to their children. But ultimately all the money in the world fails to fill the emotional void left by an absent father. Conservative Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve and the recently released Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality, argues that without a father living in the home, the effect of financial support is minimal, particularly for young men.
"When there's no father there, the role model is the 14-year-old down the block," Murray says, shrugging his shoulders. "That's the worst father figure in the world."