The House of Representatives recently voted a large pile of money to find and develop programs that turn “non-custodial parents,”—the drab bureaucratic phrase for men who produce children but don’t participate in raising them—into dads.
The question is, will social scientists, politicians, and others involved in the equation find paths to get there?
Programs to help fathers, particularly low-income minority men who are not married to the mothers of their children, are proliferating. When it was founded in 1994, the National Fatherhood Initiative could find only 200 programs promoting fatherhood in the entire nation. Today its database lists over 2,000.
No two of them are exactly alike, and each and every one, it seems, is milling out grant requests to foundations and philanthropies while also competing for state and federal welfare money that is now available to help low-income unmarried fathers.
The Fathers Count Act, passed by the House on an overwhelming bipartisan vote, would provide $140 million over four years for community-based programs to work with low-income fathers, as well as $6 million to evaluate those programs. And there appears to be strong support for some kind of legislation along these lines in the Senate.
But if the money does become available, there appears to be little consensus for how to effectively spend it.
“I am not aware of any evidence showing there’s a program model that improves child outcomes by improving the father-child relationship,” said David Blankenhorn, the head of the Institute for American Values in New York and a co-founder of the National Fatherhood Initiative.
A House of Representatives staff member who worked on the “Fathers Count” bill goes further than that, saying there isn’t significant evidence that public policy can accomplish even the more limited goal of increasing the amount of child support low-income fathers pay.
Deadbeat or Dead-Broke?
On all sides researchers are trying to sort through conundrums such as this: How does one provide assistance in the form of job training or education for fathers who aren’t meeting their responsibilities without making it seem that society is rewarding them for their anti-social behavior?
There are some promising initiatives that build on new research findings by Sara McLanahan at Princeton and others about how and when to intervene with young fathers. The Ford Foundation is evaluating programs it has funded aimed at preserving what senior program officer Ronald B. Mincy calls “fragile families.” The National Practitioners Network for Fathers and Families is engaged in an effort to define the “best practices” in the field.
“Saying it’s complicated sounds like a cop-out,” says Ralph Smith, vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is in the middle of its own evaluation of current programs. “But it is complicated.”
Researchers have established that there are big differences between “deadbeat dads,” who have money and don’t pay child support, and “dead broke” dads who might well pay if they could, but can’t. The distinction is crucial because crackdowns aimed at getting deadbeat dads to pay up on their child support often have the unintended consequence of discouraging dead broke dads from seeking work or connecting with their families.
It is also apparent that many fathers whose children are being raised by women on welfare don’t see any benefit to paying child support. If a mother is on welfare, a father’s child support payment doesn’t go to her. It goes to the state and federal governments as reimbursement for the welfare benefits paid to the mother and child. Even after the woman leaves welfare, a portion of the father’s child support payment often continues to go to the government.
This in turn has sparked a lively debate over whether the primary goal of public policy should be to get fathers to pay child support, or to get them actively involved in the lives of their children.
The financial contribution fathers make is undoubtedly important. Almost 75 percent of children growing up in single-parent families will experience poverty before they reach their twelfth birthday, and a recent analysis by Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution shows that virtually the entire increase in the number of American children “living in poverty” over the past 20 years is attributable to the increase in births to unmarried women.
But many of the detrimental effects on children who grow up without fathers appear to result from the lack of a father’s parental guidance rather than the absence of his paycheck. “What we really need,” says Blankenhorn, “is in-the-home, love-the-mommy daddies.” He points to the mounting evidence that children who grow up without fathers are more likely to fail at school, experience psychological problems, engage in early sexual activity, and develop drug and alcohol problems. They are also more likely to experience abuse, commit suicide, and become violent criminals.
The Fathers Count bill passed by the House sets up marriage promotion as one of three goals programs must have to qualify for funds, but there was testimony at hearings on the legislation that pushing marriage puts off many young fathers who need to participate.
Charles Ballard, whose Institute for Responsible Fatherhood has been working in this field since 1982 and now operates in nine cities, stipulates as his first principle that marriage, rather than cohabitation, should be the goal for the men and women he works with. “[But] if you have a woman who has four children by four different men, which one is she supposed to marry?” he asks. “And it’s possible that the answer could be the man she is with now, who may not be the father of any of the kids.”
The “M” word itself can be controversial. Feminist researcher Kathy Reich said, “I am a happily married woman, but I will tell you that the emphasis on marriage raises my hackles because it carries with it the suggestion that the man ought to be in charge of the family.” (Wade Horn, on hearing this observation, retorts, “Well, my wife is a happily married woman too, and it raises her hackles when the fatherhood issue is discussed without emphasizing marriage.”)
Indeed, at a recent Urban Institute forum on promoting “Responsible Fatherhood,” there was a sharp behind-the-scenes skirmish over whether the word “marriage” could appear on the program. In the end, it did not.
For now, attention seems to have focused on what public policy can do to help low-income men living in inner-city communities, where the number of children born to unmarried mothers approaches 90 percent, nearly triple the national average.
The first major government-sponsored effort to aid low-income fathers was the Family Support Act of 1988. It was called the “Parents Fair Share” program, and was evaluated for about five years in the early 1990s in seven cities by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp.
The program sought to increase the child support paid by low-income fathers by helping them to find better jobs. Overall, it had only a modest effect, with participants just slightly more likely to pay child support than a group of comparable non-custodial parents who were not in the program. In fact, in some cities the enrollees did worse than the control group.
The program’s flaws are spelled out in Fathers Fair Share, a book written by Earl S. Johnson, Ann Levine, and Fred C. Doolittle. The book tells the stories of men who enrolled in the program, and shows how for some a combination of health problems, addictions, lack of marketable skills, hostility from the mothers, and other factors undid the best efforts of the program.
In some cases, the men ended up in an adversarial situation with the administrators who were there to help them. The slow, cumbersome way in which the program sometimes operated caused some participants to drop out. And a few of the men, as the authors put it, “brought to the program reputations and attitudes that some staff felt were offensive, damaging, and dangerous.” The book suggested a number of ways in which the program could be improved, most of which involved a closer, more customized approach. And in fact, one of the best of the Parents Fair Share programs is still operating in Los Angeles.
This Magic Moment
Many people believe that there are other, more effective approaches. The recent research on young fathers done by Princeton’s McLanahan has provided cause for optimism. It indicates that the fathers are much more attached to the mother of their child at the time of the birth than previously realized.
Interviews with unwed fathers in Austin and Oakland indicate that over half were living with the mother at the time the child was born, and about 80 percent described themselves as “romantically involved” with the mother. Over three-quarters of the couples told researchers that they expect to marry. Ninety percent of the mothers said they wanted the father to be involved in raising their child. “In short,” McLanahan testified before a congressional committee, “unwed parents have high hopes for the future of their families.”
On the downside, few of the men had graduated from high school. Twenty percent hadn’t worked during the preceding year, and those who had worked earned very little. Around 10 percent acknowledged problems with drugs or alcohol, and 5 percent were in jail at the time they were interviewed. “Despite good intentions,” McLanahan said, “most of the fathers have serious handicaps and need help to achieve their goals.”
The good news, as she saw it, was that unlike the fathers in Parents Fair Share, the new fathers her researchers interviewed are “highly motivated” and more likely to take advantage of the services they are provided. “The birth of the baby is a ‘magic moment’ and policymakers should not let this moment slip by,” she says.
The Ford Foundation’s Mincy is one program officer who doesn’t intend to let the possibilities they may create slip away. His response is a proposed program he discussed at the Urban Institute forum that he would call “Temporary Assistance for Fragile Families.”
The program would find ways to serve families as a unit. Parents who jointly seek assistance would receive benefits and services that would help families stay on their feet when times were tough. Mincy would sidestep the marriage debate entirely by letting the couples define their own status. As long as the mother and father agreed to work together on behalf of their child they would receive services as a family.
Many of those resources would be ones that the families were entitled to but often fail to avail themselves of, such as welfare, food stamps, job training, child care assistance, and public health insurance. These would be augmented with training in parenting skills, and could incorporate income supplements. Ford and a consortium of other foundations and the federal government are testing the concept with “The Partnership for Fragile Families,” involving community-based organizations in eleven cities.
Dirty Man in a New Suit
Other programs eschew the emphasis on providing incentives like job training and education in favor of seeking a spiritual transformation.
Ballard, for one, is a big believer in the importance of an inner transformation. “Without that,” he says, “it’s like dressing up a man who’s still dirty in a new suit.” In addition to this emphasis on redemption, Ballard has irked social workers by arguing that the best people to help young men get connected with their families are people who have been through the experience themselves, rather than degree-holding counselors. Two small research studies by universities have indicated that his approach gets results, and the program has been the beneficiary of about $10 million in U.S. Department of Labor grants over the past two years.
Whether the approach is more big government or personal transformation, all programs share the ultimate goal of improving the lives of children.
Attitudes towards fatherhood have come a long way from the days when the Washington Post could report that experts doubted whether fathers made much of a difference in the lives of their children. Now we have President Clinton declaring that, “The single biggest social problem in our society may be the absence of fathers from their children’s homes, because it contributes to so many other social problems.” Or, as columnist Ellen Goodman phrased it: “We have arrived at the consensus that fathers have been lost and must be found.”
David Boldt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.