What About Black Fathers?

Emboldened by the reduction in the welfare rolls,
conservatives have renewed their demands that our welfare system reflect
traditional family values, specifically marriage. But if marriage becomes the
heavily favored family strategy of welfare policy, family-service providers and
other supporters of responsible fatherhood will find it harder to help families
as they actually exist -- families that are not always headed by married couples.

President Bush, an outspoken supporter of strong marriages, has responded to
this conservative social agenda with several policy initiatives. First, the
administration's new welfare-reform proposal adds a few key words to the fourth
goal of the 1996 welfare-reform act: "to encourage the formation and maintenance
of healthy two-parent married families and responsible fatherhood
[emphasis added]." Next, it dedicates $300 million in federal funds to support
marriage-promotion efforts. Then, the plan encourages states to provide
(pared-down) child support and commits the federal government to share in the

This proposal may soften the opposition from some women's groups to the
marriage emphasis. However, the plan only pays lip service to responsible
fatherhood and provides no dedicated federal funds to support such efforts. Thus,
responsible-fatherhood groups will have to rely exclusively upon Temporary
Assistance for Needy Families or other state funds, for which there are many
competing priorities.

Anticipating this new political and policy climate, several fatherhood groups
that work in predominantly black communities are preparing to expand services to
include marriage. The most important and innovative groups include the Center for
Fathers, Families and Workforce Development (CFWD), the National Center for
Strategic Nonprofit Planning and Community Leadership (NPCL), and the Institute
for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization (IRFFR).

CFWD is a community-based responsible-fatherhood program that also provides
job placement and wage- and career-growth services to disadvantaged fathers in
Baltimore. The goal is to encourage fathers, whether married or not, to become
more involved in their children's lives, both emotionally and financially, and
to develop a better relationship with the child's mother. NPCL is a national
intermediary organization that has trained more than 2,500 community-based
practitioners and agencies that sponsor them. It works, through federally funded
demonstration projects, to combine child-support enforcement and
workforce-development efforts in support of fragile families, so that fathers
have both the means and the commitment to contribute to the support of their
children. The organization's recent international conference brought together
more than 1,200 responsible fatherhood practitioners from the United States and
around the globe. Both organizations are now developing marriage curricula.
IRFFR, founded in the 1980s, is perhaps the oldest community-based
responsible-fatherhood program in the country. These groups, and others with
roots in the black community, did not need to be persuaded by the current
political climate that marriage was vital to rebuilding strong black families.

Some observers may accuse them of opportunism or of selling out to the
conservative agenda. However, few of these groups opposed marriage in principle,
though they did object when the early rhetoric made marriage seem like a panacea
-- and when proposals began to surface to make marriage a condition of services
or bonus payments. The rhetoric has now become more reasonable. The Bush
administration intends to promote "healthy, stable, and happy marriages" and
will target its marriage-promotion efforts at couples who choose to receive such
services. Like most Americans, black fatherhood groups support this and wish that
all the unwed parents who come to them for help were in a position to benefit
from such services. As Andrew Billingsley points out in his book Climbing
Jacob's Ladder,
blacks generally have strong family values; however, they
often struggle under difficult conditions that make it tough to act on those
values. For this reason, Billingsley argues, black communities have had more
diverse and complex family systems than whites for as long as blacks have been in
this country.

Unmarried But Not Uninvolved

Fatherhood groups who work in low-income black communities see this
diversity and complexity every day. They also know that many young unwed parents,
especially fathers, simply are unprepared to assume the responsibilities that
would produce the kind of marriages that increase child well-being. For this
reason, these groups have expanded their services to help fathers make positive
contributions to their children, even while unmarried, and to position
themselves to assume the responsibilities that would make it possible for them to
one day sustain happy marriages. The new services focus on job retention, wage
and career growth, and job placement. Besides employment services, groups are
providing legal, educational, team-parenting, substance-abuse, child-support,
health, mental-health, spouse-abuse, and other services to meet the needs of
clients and their families. They are also improving their capacity to measure
program outcomes and diversifying their staff or strengthening existing staff, in
hopes that welfare reauthorization would provide additional resources to improve
their work with fathers and families. These efforts are consistent with the 1996
goal of encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

But now the Bush administration has raised the standard to
emphasize marriage per se. And responsible-fatherhood groups that seek to promote
marriage in predominantly black communities will find it hard to achieve this
higher standard for several reasons. First, there are demographic realities. The
percentage of black women of childbearing age (say, 15 to 44 years old) who have
never married (41 percent) is just about double the percentage of comparable
white women. Second, although cohabitation and unwed births have been rising
while marriage has been declining among all race and ethnic groups, these trends
are far from convergent for whites, blacks, and other groups.

For example, unwed births are more common among cohabiting Puerto Rican
women than among black or non-Hispanic white women. However, an unwed first birth
hastens the transition to marriage among non-Hispanic white cohabiting women, has
no effect on the transition to marriage among black cohabiting women, and reduces
the prospects of marriage among Puerto Rican cohabiting women.

Given these apparent differences in family formation by race and ethnicity,
our research team at Columbia University and Princeton University has been using
data from a new birth cohort survey to study the likely effects of the
administration's approach on black and nonblack children and families. We assume
that marriage is the best option even for the children of unwed parents, if only
because marriages tend to last longer than cohabiting relationships. However, we
also acknowledge the diversity of family systems. In particular, we acknowledge
that in black communities (both here and abroad), father-child contact often
occurs through nonresidential, visiting relationships between unwed parents,
which are less stable than cohabiting relationships. This means that, unlike
traditional models of family formation, unwed parents have four options to choose
from: no father-child contact, some father-child contact, cohabitation, and
marriage. Moreover, it turns out that Billingsley's metaphor powerfully predicts
what could happen if the Bush administration's marriage initiatives could be used
flexibly to strengthen families, because these options resemble a ladder leading
to more intense and enduring forms of father-child contact.

That is, policies often have unintended effects. Thus, the responses of some
unwed parents to policies that promote marriage may fall short of the
administration's ideal but still result in more intense and enduring forms of
father-child contact than would have occurred otherwise. For example, throughout
the past two decades, the fraction of low-skilled men who are either working or
looking for work has shrunk, despite strong economic growth interrupted by brief
recessions. If welfare programs were able to help these men find jobs, some
fathers who are not now in regular contact with their children might begin to be.
Other fathers who now visit their children might live with them. And still other
fathers who are living with their children (and their children's mother) would be
married. Moreover, such a policy might have large effects on family formation and
father-child contact for black unwed parents and, to a lesser extent, for
nonblack unwed parents. Other policies might have the same effects on family
formation and father-child contact for black and nonblack unwed parents.

Strengthening Families As They Exist

Our study shows that fathers' employment benefits black and
nonblack children, no matter where their parents begin on the ladder to more
intense and enduring forms of father-child contact. Compared with children whose
fathers did not work, children with working fathers were more likely to have some
contact with their fathers, more likely to live with their fathers (and mothers
in cohabiting relationships), and more likely to live with their fathers in a
traditional married family. Having children with one partner rather than
multiple partners also increases the odds of maintaining relationships with
children, all the way up the ladder, in black and nonblack families alike.
However, a mother's work history prior to giving birth increases the odds of
cohabitation and marriage among black unwed parents but has no statistically
significant effect on the odds of moving up the ladder for nonblacks. Thus, by
providing employment services (for men as well as women) and an emphasis on
preventing out-of-wedlock births, welfare policy could increase marriage and
other forms of father-child contact for blacks and increase (or leave unchanged)
the same outcomes for nonblacks.

Other policies would affect these groups or outcomes differently. Higher
cash benefits increase the odds that black and nonblack fragile families have
some father-child contact and the odds that they cohabit, but have no effect on
the odds that they marry. By contrast, more effective child-support enforcement
increases the odds of marriage among nonblacks but reduces the odds of
father-child contact, without affecting the odds of marriage among blacks.

Unfortunately, these promising policy instruments have been
sidelined in the current debate. Instead, the administration is placing its
entire emphasis on promoting marriage. Our research suggests such efforts would
produce mixed results. They might encourage some unwed mothers to marry. We find,
for example, that nonblack unwed mothers with some religious affiliation are more
likely to marry the fathers of their children than those without a religiousaffiliation. Black unwed mothers affiliated with faith communities that hold
conservative views on family issues are more likely to marry the fathers of their
children than are black unwed mothers with no religious affiliation.

However, great caution is required before black communities would embrace
such approaches -- because the approaches are likely to celebrate the virtues of
marriage while stigmatizing unwed births, something blacks traditionally have not
done because of historical experience. Although rates have risen in recent
decades, single motherhood has been much more common among black families for
more than 100 years. The reasons for this are complex. Some black women became
single mothers because they (and the fathers of their children) violated social
and religious prohibitions against nonmarital sex. Others became single mothers
because they were raped or their husbands were lynched. Still others became
single mothers because their husbands migrated north in search of employment but
never returned after job discrimination dashed their hopes.

Often in the painful history of race relations in this country, desertion and
victimization were as likely the causes of single motherhood as was moral
failure. In any individual case, who could know? Who would ask? In response, the
black community developed a tradition of embracing all of its children, even the
fair-skinned ones. Under these circumstances, stigmatizing unwed births was
impossible. Fortunately, in many respects the circumstances have changed.

There is mounting evidence that children are better off if they
grow up in healthy, married-couple families. This poses a unique challenge for
the black community, because the substantial retreat from marriage in the black
community has created extraordinarily high rates of childbearing and child
rearing among unwed blacks. Marriage proponents would be wise to let this
evidence prick the conscience of the nation with this question: How did we allow
childbirth and child rearing to divorce themselves from marriage? The diverse
race and ethnic groups that now constitute America will have different answers --
and different strategies for creating or re-creating the most supportive family
arrangements for children.

As they wrestle with this question, each group will be forced to
reflect on its past and its future and to develop responses. If the issue is
forced by heavily subsidizing marriage, the response that is easiest for whites
but hardest for blacks will only provide a common threat against which blacks
will rally. This will only distract them from the kind of private, searching
dialogue the black community needs to reach into its own soul and find what is
best for all its children, those whose parents marry and those whose parents do

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