Fatherhood Matters

Lost Fathers: The Politics of Fatherlessness in America, by Cynthia R. Daniels, ed. St. Martins Press, 224 pages, $24.95.

The Fatherhood Movement: A Call to Action, by Wade F. Horn, David Blankenhorn, Mitchell B. Perlstein, eds. Lexington Books, 352 pages, $14.95.

Turning the Corner on Father Absence in Black America. A Statement from the Morehouse Conference on African-American Fathers. Morehouse Research Institute and the Institute for American Values, report, 31 pages.

Fathers' Fair Share: Helping Poor Men Manage Child Support and Fatherhood, by Earl S. Johnson, Ann Levine, and Fred C. Doolittle. Russell Sage Foundation, 320 pages, $45.00.

On the campaign trail, Vice President Al Gore recently gave a speech with the following central claim: "Promoting responsible fatherhood is the critical next phase of welfare reform and one of the most important things we can do to reduce child poverty." Five years ago, the question of how important fathers are to the well-being of their children was scarcely on the public agenda. That's changed. The fact that a leading candidate for the presidency delivered a policy speech on the issue is one indication of how much momentum the fatherhood movement has gained.

Great numbers of American children are growing up apart from their fathers. There is a now a wider acknowledg-ment that fathers ought to play an important part in their children's lives beyond their role as breadwinners. After decades of debate about whether growing up with a single parent is harmful to a child, the key rallying point of the fatherhood movement is the belief that every child needs the love and support of a responsible father.

Interest in fatherhood issues has been bipartisan and wide-ranging. The emergence of the Promise Keepers, an evangelical Christian men's group that draws thousands of men to its rallies in stadiums and sports arenas, is one expression of the religious right's recent emphasis on encouraging men to be better husbands and fathers. Within the social policy research community, the publication in 1994 of Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur's book Growing up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps provoked scholars to re-examine the benefit a child receives from having a father present. McLanahan and Sandefur argued persuasively that "growing up with only one biological parent frequently deprives children of important economic, parental, and community resources, and that these deprivations ultimately undermine their chances of future success." Around the same time, David Blankenhorn published Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem. Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, advanced a conservative critique that blasted American cultural and social institutions for undermining the father's role in the family and weakening the bond between men and their children.

The progressive Families and Work Institute supports the Fatherhood Project, an initiative designed to examine the future of fatherhood and promote greater involvement by fathers in child rearing. On Capitol Hill, Republican Representative Nancy Johnson reintroduced the Fathers Count bill to the House with the purpose of allowing states to use funds from their welfare block grants to support community-based "responsible fatherhood" initiatives. The bill passed in the House in November and was awaiting Senate consideration early this year.

Differing perspectives on the fatherhood issue have led to uneasy alliances as well as heated debate. The collected volumes The Fatherhood Movement: A Call to Action and Lost Fathers: The Politics of Fatherlessness in America illustrate some points of agreement as well as tensions within the movement. Conservative writers--such as Blankenhorn, David Popenoe, Maggie Galla-gher, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead--tend to criticize changes in mores and attitudes toward divorce, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing as being responsible for family breakdown. They encourage marriage as the best way to promote responsible fatherhood. The notion that the cultural upheaval of the 1960s has enabled adults to indulge in a selfish pursuit of individual happiness that often comes at the expense of children is a familiar refrain of the conservative critique. According to Popenoe, "Large segments of the population have come to regard pure 'self-fulfillment' as their dominant life goal, pushing aside such traditional 'Victorian' values as selfsacrifice, commitment to others, and institutional obligation." The "family values" position is succinctly articulated by Senator Dan Coats, who states in an essay in The Fatherhood Movement, "Government policy should communicate a clear, public preference for marriage and family on matters such as public housing, the tax code, family planning, and divorce law. Rewarding intact families is not, as some argue, a form of discrimination. It is a form of self-preservation."

The strong opposition to the Fathers Count bill from the National Organization for Women (NOW) is evidence of how high suspicion of the fatherhood movement runs in some feminist quarters. NOW has labeled the bill "dangerous legislation" and has vowed to "do everything we can to stop it." According to NOW President Patricia Ireland, "At first glance, the Fathers Count Act of 1999 appears to have worthy goals, including helping poor men to be better fathers. Upon closer examination, however, it is clear that this bill would undermine support for custodial parents, the majority of whom are women." NOW raises the valid concern that, in adverse circumstances, policies that promote marriage may inadvertently increase the incidence of domestic violence. Although the bill's supporters see it as promising legislation that will encourage responsible fatherhood by teaching parenting and employment skills to disadvantaged men, NOW activists fear that the bill could be exploited by men's custody groups to advance their own agenda.

Another point of contention is what the fatherhood movement should offer to fathers who are single, divorced, or separated from their children. While supporters of "family values" are almost exclusively preoccupied with promoting and strengthening marriage, fathers' rights advocates are primarily concerned with reforming divorce and child custody laws, and maintaining fathers' access to their children. They usually work on behalf of men who are divorced but who wish to be supportive fathers. In a chapter in The Fatherhood Movement, Ken R. Canfield writes, "Many social commentators have concluded that the most prudent way to promote responsible fatherhood is to promote and restore marriage. This is wise, and it would be naïve to fail to consider new strategies which seek to reverse the tide of divorce and strengthen the marriage bond. But a fathering movement must also offer a broad and redemptive view of fatherhood which can help all men, married, divorced, and single to make the best out of their individual situations." For conservative authors, that's secondary at best. On occasion, they betray a mocking attitude toward attempts to support fatherhood outside of marriage. Perhaps they fear that legitimizing greater involvement by divorced and unmarried fathers may divert atten-tion from strengthening intact two-parent families or unintentionally encourage divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing.

Many of the tensions created by competing agendas within the fatherhood movement were evident at the Morehouse Conference on African-American Fathers, held at Morehouse College in November of 1998. Although father absence is a cause for concern for society as a whole, the fact that approximately 70 percent of black children are born to unmarried mothers makes it particularly urgent in the African-American community. The statement released by the conference--whose signatories include David Blankenhorn, Glenn C. Loury, Sara McLanahan, Lawrence Mead, and William Julius Wilson--indicates that participants were divided on whether the principal cause of father absence among African Americans was lack of economic opportunities for black men or changing patterns in cultural norms that have reduced the social sanctions against out-of-wedlock childbearing and divorce. Despite their differences on whether the emphasis should be placed on poor economic prospects or cultural values, the signatories agreed that the two are inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing.

Liberals in this discussion advocate programs and policy changes designed to enhance the employment prospects of fathers at the lower end of the income scale. A key element in the intellectual foundation of the liberal perspective is the "marriageable male pool" hypothesis advanced in William Julius Wilson's 1987 book The Truly Disadvantaged. Wilson articulates a theory of family formation that assumes that women in low-income communities will be less likely to marry as the number of available men in the area with stable employment and earnings declines. Wilson examines long-term trends in the econ-omy that have reduced the demand for unskilled labor and weakened the employment prospects of men without the training and educational credentials that are valued in the new economy. According to his theory, women consider a man less "marriageable" if he does not hold a stable job. Wilson suggests that low marriage rates and father absence in low-income communities are primarily the consequence of limited economic opportunities. Hence, many of the progressive initiatives that address the problems of fatherless families emphasize job training and placement programs designed to improve the economic prospects of poor fathers and enable them to provide support for their children.

Until recently, fathers were virtually ignored in research on children and families, and government statistics reflected this bias. To overcome the scarcity of reliable data, President Clinton issued a 1995 memorandum to all federal agencies, directing them to make a concerted effort to include information on fathers in their research programs where appropriate. Several grant-making foundations are contributing to the development of a database that tracks fathers and families by supporting the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Project. Co-directed by Irwin Garfinkel and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Columbia University and Sara McLanahan of Princeton University, the $12-million study's sponsors include the Ford, Robert Wood Johnson, David and Lucille Packard, and William T. Grant foundations.

In the past few years, foundations have granted considerable resources to community-based "responsible fatherhood" programs. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which operates primarily in the San Francisco Bay area, has created an entire subcategory for "Responsible Fatherhood and Male Involvement" within its family and community development grants. The Annie E. Casey and Charles Stewart Mott foundations have also been supporting a number of fatherhood projects.

The Ford Foundation's Strengthening Fragile Families initiative has been an exemplary strategy for assisting disadvantaged fathers and their children. Ford's initiative, a set of coordinated grants, has been led by Senior Program Officer Ronald Mincy. The term "fragile families" was coined by Mincy to designate a family formed when a child is born out of wedlock to young disadvantaged parents. Within the fragile-families framework, the child, resident parent, and nonresident parent are viewed as a single unit-- a family. Since 1994, the Strengthening Fragile Families initiative has supported a set of community-based responsible fatherhood programs across the nation that aim to help low-income fathers build relationships with their children and become more able to provide support. It seeks to rebuild low-income families by bringing fathers back into the equation.

The starting point of this perspective is the recognition that traditional welfare policy, child support enforcement laws, and public housing policies conspire to push young unwed parents apart. Policies that affect families often contain the built-in assumption that a two-parent family has ended in divorce or separation, and that the father is able--but perhaps not willing--to provide child support. These policies are ill-equipped to provide the support necessary to help unwed and disadvantaged fathers and mothers become more functional parents. In many cases, present policies, which are designed to provide support when a middle- or high-income family ends in divorce, only contribute to hardships faced by poor men and their families. An essay by Ronald Mincy and Hillard Pouncy in The Fatherhood Movement summarizes the situation as follows:

Since policymakers continue to develop these systems with traditional family formation in mind, they do not perceive the father as partner in the case of an unwed conception. Income security and family support systems bring resources, however meager, to the mother and child, leaving the father as destitute as he was before conception. He brings nothing to his fragile family and may even threaten its eligibility for needed public benefits. Because of their focus on the traditional family, policymakers focus on events following marital dissolution, such as child support, access, and visitation. The policies that emerge cre-ate additional hurdles for the fragile family. As a result, fatherlessness among groups that conceive in poverty dwarfs fatherlessness among other groups.

In addition to viewing the father as a possible resource for rebuilding the family, the fragile-families framework recognizes the potential relationship between the unwed parents. Preliminary findings from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Project reveal that many unwed parents are still romantically linked or cohabiting around the time of their child's birth. Although some unwed mothers want nothing to do with the father, most report wanting the father to be involved in their children's lives. When the unwed parents remain involved during the period between pregnancy and early childhood, the relationship can either wither away or become more stable and committed. In other words, they are in the midst of a family formation process that is not yet complete. Under present policies, the opportunity to develop the relationship between the young parents is squandered. One aim of the fragile-families initiative is to support the relationship between the parents and enable them to work as a team on behalf of the child.

As Mincy and Pouncy write,

To receive cash assistance, an unwed mother must show that her income is below the eligibility standard for cash assistance in her state. Unless the combined incomes of a mother and the father of her child outweigh the sum of Medicaid benefits, child care, food stamps, and cash assistance she and the child would receive, she loses money if the father remains involved in the family. When the father's income is low and unstable, this provides a strong incentive to push him away, which places many fragile families in an income/benefits trap.

They recommend reforming assistance programs so that low-income families in which the father is seeking to be responsible and involved will not be penalized.

One of the biggest obstacles that prevents poor fathers from being more involved in their children's lives is the inflexibility of the child support enforcement system. The system is designed to collect support payments from "deadbeat dads" who are able, but unwilling, to pay. During the late 1970s and 1980s, the child support enforcement system became more punitive and stressed strict compliance. The shift in policy was designed to prevent noncustodial parents who were capable of paying from evading child support orders. These tough new measures, which may be appropriate for middle- and upper-income fathers, often result in child support orders for low-income men that far exceed their ability to pay. The system fails to distinguish low-income fathers as a separate group from more affluent fathers. In some states, low-income men are ordered to pay arrears on pain of imprisonment. Enforcement measures against destitute fathers do little to improve the well-being of mothers and children, but do manage to drive these men deeper into poverty. Ultimately, inflexible child support enforcement policies lead many poor fathers to avoid establishing paternity and further discourage family formation.

Responsible fatherhood programs employ an array of strategies to transform absent fathers into men who are able to take care of their children. Peer group sessions that force absent fathers to confront how their lack of support hurts their children have proven effective at motivating these fathers to change their behavior.

Since joblessness and poor economic prospects are factors that handicap low-income fathers' ability to provide support for their children, community-based programs attempt to address these problems by providing basic classes and job placement services. Securing jobs for low-income fathers is absolutely critical for enabling them to become responsible parents.

Mediation and conflict-resolution services are also an important component of community-based programs. Although relations between unwed parents are often strained, these programs encourage participants to work constructively with the mothers on behalf of their children. Mincy and Pouncy point out, "This does not require the mother and father to remain romantically involved, but it does require that they get the skills and support they need to work as a team to provide for their child's financial, emotional, and developmental needs." Program practitioners help to manage tensions in order to generate more collaborative behavior between the parents. They recognize that efforts to encourage absent fathers to play a more active role will be successful only if women can be persuaded to allow them to do so.

Mincy and Pouncy also envision community-based responsible fatherhood programs as playing an important role in helping child support enforcement agencies meet the goals of the 1996 welfare reform law, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The act puts greater pressure on states to establish paternity in order to increase the collection of child support. Mincy and Pouncy believe that the reform represents an extraordinary opportunity to rethink welfare and child support policies in ways that help fragile families. They suggest, "Program workers could help fathers document their earnings before child support hearings occur, for example, so courts could set child support orders that are within the father's means. In lieu of cash support payments, community-based responsible fatherhood programs might monitor in-kind services rendered by fathers who lack stable sources of income." They advocate making child support policies that affect low-income fathers more flexible. Greater flexibility would enable enforcement agencies to take into account the father's circumstances and prevent delinquent payments from piling up.

One of the goals of the welfare reform law of 1996 was to encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families. The fragile families framework suggests that community-based responsible fatherhood programs can help achieve this goal in disadvantaged communities. The National Practitioners Network for Fathers and Families is currently working to build on the experiences of individual programs and disseminate the best practices.

One might fairly ask how effective these programs are at securing employment for program participants and getting absent fathers involved in the lives of their children. These are two of the questions addressed in Earl S. Johnson, Ann Levine, and Fred C. Doolittle's book Fathers' Fair Share. Published by the Russell Sage Foundation, the study is an evaluation of a multistate employment and parental responsibility program run by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation.

The pilot program examined by the book, called Parents' Fair Share, was authorized by the Family Support Act of 1988 to provide job training services for unemployed fathers whose children were on welfare. The objective of the program was to increase the participants' employment prospects, earnings, and ability to pay child support. In addition to employment services, the program offered participants peer support groups, mediation services, and a temporary reduction of their child support orders. Lowincome fathers were referred to the program by the courts, and participation was compulsory.

More than anything else, the book impresses upon the reader the enormous obstacles faced by poor men struggling to get a foothold in the mainstream economy. The men in Parents' Fair Share were drawn from the most marginalized of outsiders, whose focus on mere survival did not permit them to look beyond the present moment. Some men in the study sample were so destitute that getting bus fare to commute to the program site posed a significant problem. The authors report, "At one point or another, almost all the men in the sample faced situations where their jobs (potential or actual) and personal well-being hinged on a few quarters or a couple of dollars." For the most part, the men were poorly educated and possessed few marketable skills. The personal histories described in this book are records of constant stress and desperation. Among the multitude of obstacles that prevented participants from finding stable employment were erratic work histories, criminal records, and drug abuse. To make ends meet, many of them had resorted to work in the underground economy.

A segment of the men in Parents' Fair Share were able to establish or renew ties to their children and families. Younger fathers, who managed to forge some semblance of economic independence, were able to reconnect more easily than older fathers who had been separated from their children for a longer period of time. In some cases, participants who were unable to improve their economic situation did manage to learn the skills necessary to rebuild relationships with their children.

Considering the liabilities absent fathers brought to the program, it is not surprising that finding jobs for them that would improve their circumstances proved to be difficult. For some participants, attendance was sporadic, and many dropped out. The prospect of finding a stable job lured many participants to the program, and they were extremely disappointed when the program was unable to find them employment. There were success stories, but long-term job placement was rare.

Although the results of the pilot program are somewhat disappointing, the experience of Parents' Fair Share is something community-based responsible fatherhood programs can build on. The biggest lesson learned is that programs designed to assist absent fathers must find creative ways to place participants in jobs that will improve their economic circumstances and enable them to achieve stability in their lives.

Community-based efforts to promote responsible fatherhood in lowincome families are just one part of a movement to encourage greater involvement by fathers in the lives of their children. The diversity of perspectives of the many groups addres-sing fatherhood issues makes it unlikely that a consensus will emerge anytime soon on what policy options will best serve American families. In the 1980s, a consensus among policy makers was reached that punitive measures were necessary to extract child support from fathers who were delinquent in their payments. Today, some foundations and political leaders suggest that helping fathers to become more responsible parents is paramount. When Vice President Gore gave his address on fatherhood issues, he combined the punitive and compassionate approaches by stressing the importance of cracking down on deadbeat dads and promoting promising responsible fatherhood model programs. For too long, conservatives have dominated discussion of family values. Progressive programs, such as the fragilefamilies initiative, offer the hope of ameliorating the problems of America's most disadvantaged families. If they are to be successful at building a broader coalition, progressive advocates of responsible fatherhood must make sure that the policies and programs they propose also promote equal partnership between the parents. ¤