As David Popenoe recounts in this issue, during the 1990s a number of social scientists and cultural thinkers waged war on various notions that had permeated the popular culture concerning family life. Among the most pernicious of these now-debunked myths: that family structure is infinitely malleable; that single-parent homes are just as successful at raising healthy, well-adjusted kids as two-parent homes; that fathers aren’t all that critical to healthy family life, other than as sources of financial support; and that divorce rarely has serious consequences for children.
One of the major figures involved in slaying these myths was Dr. Wade F. Horn, a clinical child psychologist who had practiced at Children’s Hospital and George Washington University Medical School in Washington, D.C. During the first Bush administration, Horn served as the commissioner for Children, Youth, and Families.
But his greatest contribution to the field of family study came as president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, dedicated to improving the well-being of children by increasing the number of involved, committed, responsible fathers in this country. From there, as author of several books and a weekly syndicated column, and as a frequent guest on national radio and TV shows, he became a leading light of the fatherhood movement.
Today, Dr. Horn is assistant secretary of health and human services for children and families. He heads a $46 billion agency that administers a number of federal programs that bear on family life, including Head Start, adoption assistance programs, the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program (TANF), and programs that deal with needy, abused, homeless, or migrant youths. He spoke to Philanthropy at his office in Washington, D.C.
PHILANTHROPY: When you were at the National Fatherhood Initiative and other nonprofit groups, how difficult was it to raise money for family-strengthening programs?
DR. HORN: It wasn’t easy, particularly at the early stages. When we started the National Fatherhood Initiative in 1994, we were taking on a new issue with a bold vision: to change the culture’s understanding of the importance of fatherhood to the well-being of children, adults, and society. Fortunately there are enough foundations that specialize in start-ups that we were able to raise money to get the organization off the ground. And each year, we raised more money than the year before. The other thing that is sometimes difficult is finding not just start-up capital, but continuing operational support. There’s a tendency in philanthropy for people to focus on new ideas, and once an idea has been around for a while, it’s sometimes harder to raise operational support. So I think a healthy balance in philanthropy between start-up capital and operational support would be ideal.
I don’t want to be harsh about the philanthropic world, but there is a sort of conservatism to the field, not in terms of values, but in terms of approach. It’s easier to fund safe things than to fund bold new ideas that may be controversial.
PHILANTHROPY: What kinds of healthy marriage initiatives are you considering?
DR. HORN: The way to think about healthy marriage initiatives is in the context of this mission statement: “To help couples who choose marriage for themselves access the services necessary to acquire the skills and knowledge to form and sustain healthy marriages.” It’s not about forcing anybody to get married; it’s about helping those couples who either have already chosen marriage or are in the process of choosing marriage to acquire a set of skills and knowledge that will help them form and sustain not just any kind of marriage, but a healthy marriage. A lot of very interesting work is being done in this area around the country, much of it starved for funds. Some of it is based at universities, some of it is found in community-based organizations, some in faith-based organizations. If we care about what’s happening to kids in America today, and if we believe the empirical literature that one of the things that places kids at risk for poor outcomes is growing up outside of a two-parent, healthily married household, then philanthropy may want to explore innovative ways to fund and support those programs.
PHILANTHROPY: When the fatherhood movement started, it focused on the need for married fathers to help raise children. In recent years some have expressed concern about the term “responsible fatherhood,” for fear it suggests that it’s sufficient for a father to be connected to his children, but not necessarily to their mother. What do you think?
DR. HORN: I’m not sure I agree that the movement began with an emphasis on married fatherhood as the ideal. There certainly were those of us who believed that, and believed it passionately. Certainly that was the founding vision of the National Fatherhood Initiative and also reflected in the work of David Blankenhorn, David Popenoe, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. But if you look at other activities around fatherhood at that time or earlier, the two much larger aspects had first to do with child support and finding ways to get higher levels of child support from non-custodial fathers, and then the flip side of that, fathers’ rights. Those are two other streams of the fatherhood movement, if you will.
I think that the challenge for the fatherhood movement is to coalesce around a core idea, and I’ve suggested in my writings that that core idea is the fact that fathers provide something unique and irreplaceable in children’s lives. As a corollary, we need to promote married fatherhood as the ideal while recognizing that not every father finds himself in that situation. We can’t just say to kids who have non-custodial/non-married fathers, “You should have chosen your father better,” and then forget about them. So, yes, I think there is a challenge facing the fatherhood movement to be clear about married fatherhood as the ideal, but at the same time recognize there are fathers who find themselves in other kinds of circumstances and their kids deserve to have a relationship with their fathers too, if that relationship can be nurturing and responsible.
PHILANTHROPY: In recent years the statistics related to the family are no longer plunging but leveling off or even improving slightly. Meanwhile even Murphy Brown has admitted that Dan Quayle was right to worry about kids who grow up without fathers. Is the state of the family improving?
DR. HORN: I’m optimistic about the future, and I see some of the demographic changes as encouraging, but I’m not sanguine. I think we need to build on the successes we’ve seen over the last five or ten years in terms of increasing the public’s awareness of the consequences of fatherlessness and the importance of marriage to children, adults, and communities. We also need to strengthen activities on the ground that produce results. We have seen the number of kids fathered out of wedlock plateauing somewhat, but it hasn’t really decreased very much; in fact today it’s at the highest level in recorded history. We need to figure out ways to make that rate drop significantly.
PHILANTHROPY: Would you distinguish between improvement in the reality on the ground versus improvement in elite opinion on these questions?
DR. HORN: If you asked me that question ten years ago, I would have said there’s a great disconnect between elite opinion and opinion around the kitchen table. Elite opinion said, “Fathers really don’t matter much; there are all sorts of ways to structure a family, and it doesn’t matter which one people choose,” while average Americans hope they will succeed in a lifetime committed relationship within the context of marriage and hope their kids will do the same. But over the last ten years there has been a strange sort of convergence: A lot of elite opinion makers have become convinced by the empirical evidence that kids do best when they grow up within the context of a two-parent healthy marriage. At the same time, I’m afraid that there may have been a weakening around the kitchen table regarding the commitment to marriage, with the best evidence of this change being the explosion of cohabitation we’ve seen over the last 10 to 15 years. You can either see this glass as half full or half empty. I’m an eternal optimist; I think there are a lot of encouraging signs, but if I were so optimistic that I felt the battle was won, I would spend my time doing something else besides being assistant secretary here at HHS, making a lot more money. But I’m in this game for the long haul. I think it’s important for kids that we not only talk the talk but actually persuade more people to walk the walk. By that I mean that at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what elite opinion is or what people say around the kitchen table. What matters is whether more children are growing up with real live, in the home, love-the-mother married fathers. That is where we need to keep our focus.
PHILANTHROPY: You said the change in elite opinion largely resulted from strong research. Does philanthropy have a role there?
DR. HORN: I would hope so. Philanthropists ought to not only be interested in basic research but also in evaluating whether or not what they’re funding actually has an impact on the target population, be that children, adults, or communities.
PHILANTHROPY: How can government best facilitate philanthropy in both research and grassroots efforts to improve lives?
DR. HORN: In several ways. First, private philanthropy can partner with government and we can pool resources and work together to fund demonstration projects with meaningful evaluations in order to advance our knowledge base. Government can also, through its example and leadership, help philanthropy understand the importance of investing in particular topic areas. And through its funding, government can model for the private sector what kinds of activities may be useful to explore. If it was only up to government to fund the network of social services and interesting demonstration projects in these areas there would not be enough resources. And I don’t think it would be good even if government did have enough resources because the political process is such that when administrations come and go, there are dramatic shifts in governmental priorities. We need more stability in funding in these areas than is possible from government, and that underlying stability can be provided by private resources.
PHILANTHROPY: How do you structure government funding to avoid fostering dependency in the private groups that partner with government?
DR. HORN: This question always puzzles me. When I was in the nonprofit sector, we were necessarily dependent upon others to give us money. At the National Fatherhood Initiative, we didn’t make widgets; we didn’t have a product that we then went to the for-profit sector to market. The nonprofit world is largely dependent upon the charity of others, whether it’s private philanthropy, individual giving, or government resources. Again, it would be bad if any endeavor became totally dependent on government resources, but the only cure is to have private giving come in and replace public giving in a particular area. Yet we can’t expect the nonprofit sector to suddenly become the equivalent of the for-profit sector—develop a product, sell it in the open market, and sustain itself that way. There are probably exceptions to that, but it’s called the nonprofit sector for a reason.
PHILANTHROPY: So you wouldn’t distinguish between, say, a small church’s project to connect fathers with children and a giant nonprofit that receives a lot of government funding?
DR. HORN: Well, I’m a results guy, and if that little church is doing a bang-up job with the guys that they’re working with, with the couples that they’re helping to form and sustain healthy marriages, that’s terrific. If a large charity is also working in the same areas and getting the same kinds of results, that’s terrific too. The question is not, “Is this project big or small?” but rather, “Is it achieving results?” I think we need to challenge the small community-based and faith-based organizations to produce more evidence that what they’re doing is achieving the desired outcomes, and we need to put that same expectation on the large social service providers as well.
PHILANTHROPY: Is there evidence that in the past some large charities who receive large parts of their budget from government funds later tend to support increased government spending, even though the government’s results may not have been impressive?
DR. HORN: No question about that. If any entity becomes too dependent upon government for its support, it may become an advocate for increased government spending in order to be sure that it continues to be supported in its work. That’s a danger we have to be careful to avoid. It is also absolutely true that small community-based and faith-based organizations are in many ways disadvantaged in the competition for government funds. Large national organizations often have whole suites of offices of people who specialize in applying for contracts and so forth. It’s no great surprise that they’re more successful at gaining government grants and contracts. A small community-based or faith-based organization, if they’re lucky, may have somebody able to concentrate on an application for a couple of hours one morning. It’s going to be hard for them to compete. That’s why the president has asked for this new Compassion Capital Fund to help those small faith-based and community-based organizations compete on a more level playing field with larger social service providers by improving their ability to negotiate the maze of government applications for contracts and grants.
PHILANTHROPY: There would seem to be three major threats to the health of the family in America: out-of-wedlock births, cohabitation, and divorce. How would you evaluate and rank those problems?
DR. HORN: I think the big issue is how we can have more children growing up within the context of a two-parent, healthily married household. The rest of this stuff is either a consequence or a predictor of difficulty in the marriage arena. So when couples believe that cohabitation before marriage—contrary to all scientific evidence—will help to strengthen their subsequent marriage, that’s a problem. When couples think marriage doesn’t really matter and hence have a child out of wedlock, that’s a problem. When couples think that there are no real consequences for children when marriages break up, that’s a problem. So the core issues are, how do we get people to understand the importance of marriage, for children, adults, and communities? How do we go about providing support and encouragement so that more couples want to make the choice to move into marriage, to delay childbearing until marriage, and once they’re married to work on their marriage to make sure it stays healthy and strong, not just for the benefit of their kids but also for themselves and society?
PHILANTHROPY: If a philanthropist told you he wanted to support these marriage efforts, what is the very first thing you would urge he do?
DR. HORN: The first thing I’d urge is that he not run away from the word “marriage.” Far too many philanthropists today have difficulty even saying the word. They gravitate to phrases like, “couple relationship skills training.” I have no trouble with relationship skills training; that’s terrific, but that’s not marriage. We ought to get over our aversion to the word, maybe stand in front of a mirror every day and say “marriage” 20 times and notice that the world doesn’t fall down around us. And then challenge ourselves to think creatively about how to reach our goal of seeing more kids growing up in healthy, two-parent, married households. What do we have to do at the individual level, the community level, the societal level, to get there? You could fund public awareness campaigns about the value of marriage to children, adults, and communities. You could support marital outreach programs to couples who have already chosen marriage but may be having difficulty. You could support pre-marital education services so that more couples have access to programs that provide them with the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain a healthy marriage. My personal preference is not to make marriage harder to get out of, but to make it more attractive to stay in. And that’s why I’m so enthusiastic about the skills-based approach. If people have the skills, and love each other, and have a commitment to marital permanence, then I don’t think they will wake up one morning and think, “You know, I’m happy, I’m in love, I’ve got good skills, so has my spouse, we’re committed to each other, but I think we’ll get a divorce this afternoon.” It just doesn’t happen. And so I’d rather work on building up those skills than on making it harder to get out of marriages. There’s huge room for philanthropy to work in those areas. A lot of things could be done.
PHILANTHROPY: You recently told a group of philanthropists that the media is friendlier on these topics than many people realize. What media advice would you give to philanthropists?
DR. HORN: First, talk about marriage; get over the reluctance to say the word. Most people in the media are like the rest of us—maybe marriage worked for them or it didn’t, but if you ask them what their dreams are and what hopes they have for their children, they want healthy marriages. We just need to get over the reluctance to talk about this. Then we need to sound reasonable. Nobody is talking about mandating that couples get married, nobody is talking about trapping people in abusive relationships, nobody is talking about running governmental dating services. Let couples take care of the love part for themselves. What we ought to care about is the skills part and the knowledge part. The skills part teaches couples how to deal with conflict, while the knowledge part teaches them the value of a commitment to this ideal of marital permanence and why marriage is important—not just in utilitarian terms, but why it’s important to kids and to society at large. If philanthropists talk about that in the media, the media will generally be quite receptive.
PHILANTHROPY: Are there things that philanthropy can do that government can’t do in this area?
DR. HORN: There are some within the conservative movement who ask, “Why should government be involved in this at all?” My response is, “Government is already there.” I oversee about $46 billion in taxpayers’ money, and I have a choice—I can spend that money on good things that help the family and marriage or on bad things that hurt them. The one thing I don’t have a choice to do is not to spend it. In fact, there’s a law that says I commit a felony if I do not make every reasonable effort to spend every dollar.
And so it seems to me that my job is not to get into an intellectual argument about whether or not we ought to be spending $46 billion at the Administration for Children and Families. My job is to try to make sure the money we do spend is well spent and in fact produces positive results for kids, for families, and for communities. That’s what I’m here to do, not to get into an intellectual debate with libertarians as to whether government ought to be involved in this or that particular area.
But there is a danger when you control this kind of money that you start to believe that all solutions are government solutions. It’s important to remind oneself that, while trying to do good with the money that has been appropriated to you, there is an important and necessary role for the private sector—in this instance, private philanthropy. And that role is not just to be an adjunct to government services, but an important contributor in its own right to solutions and results for kids and families and communities.