Health & Human Services

Father Time

There's a growing focus in welfare policy on a long-neglected part of the problem: fatherhood.
by | March 2005

It's a normal weekday morning in the family courtroom at Baltimore City circuit court. The docket is crowded. First up: a man who has seven children and isn't making his support payments to any of them. Three of the mothers are present, and they are indignant. One of them says she's seen the man driving around in a new Jeep Cherokee "He was in the Navy," says another. "He has a good job."

The defendant isn't there. The presiding judge asks how far behind he is in his payments. When the clerk states the figure--$110,351--the spectators in the courtroom gasp. The judge issues a warrant for his arrest, and bail is set at $5,000--per case.Next is a young couple--or rather, a dreadlocked young man and a moon-faced young woman who were once a couple. Although the man has been in court before for missing payments, he seems surprised to learn that the presents he gives his son and the child care his mother provides don't count for much in the eyes of the court. Nor does the man's argument that he is unemployed. He's found to be in contempt and ordered to pay $500, start making child support payments, and look for a job before the next hearing. The threat is clear: If he doesn't get his act together, his next stop will be jail.

A decade ago this scene--one that plays out in hundreds of courts and hearing rooms across the country every day--would have been viewed as a success, an example of the child support enforcement system catching up with a pair of deadbeat dads. Now it's seen very differently--as a failure of the social policy apparatus to deal with the biggest remaining piece of the welfare puzzle: the creation of a rational policy toward fatherhood.

More and more, experts are distinguishing between two kinds of dysfunctional dads. The man with the Jeep Cherokee is a classic deadbeat--he needs to be pursued and dunned. The second man is a well- meaning washout who'd like to help but can't get himself off the ground. Most child support systems, including the one in Maryland, fail to distinguish between the two. As a result, instead of helping low-income fathers stay involved in their children's lives, the system often pushes them away.

When a single mom files for welfare benefits, explains Dan Hatcher, a University of Baltimore professor who has worked with low-income fathers for the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, "that means assigning child support rights. It sets an adversarial process in motion. And orders are dated back to the time of filing. So these guys start with a few thousand in arrearages. For someone working at a minimum-wage job, if that, they start behind and never catch up."

Those who try to do the right thing are often punished, sometimes quite severely. Unemployed fathers who enter the workforce often confront a loss of benefits and new taxes that give them an effective tax rate as high as 60 to 80 percent. If they fall behind in their payments, states can garnish up to 65 percent of their take-home wages.

A decade ago, when Congress wrote the TANF welfare reform law, nearly all the emphasis was on mothers--how to get them off the dole and into the workforce. Fathers figured primarily as a source of child support payments. Now, as welfare reauthorization comes up, state and local governments are concluding that the next step should involve helping low-income fathers become the productive partners a stable family structure demands.

"The 1996 welfare law got us thinking about how to build stronger two-parent families," says Dana Reichert, a consultant who headed Louisiana's TANF program from 2001 to 2004. "Reauthorization gives us a further opportunity to find new ways to help fragile families stay together, to keep fathers involved and connected."

Fueling this interest is the prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars in new federal funding and a growing body of research showing that children raised apart from their biological fathers are two or three times more likely to grow up poor, use drugs, do poorly in school, and run afoul of the criminal justice system than children who grow up with their fathers at home.

California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York all have launched programs that explore ways to keep fathers involved in the lives of their children. But in designing these programs, policy makers have run up against a sensitive question: Should they accept that the traditional two-parent family is, for many couples, unattainable, and therefore focus on getting absent fathers to play some role in the lives of their children? Or should they take on the more ambitious goal, strongly supported by the Bush administration, of shoring up the traditional family itself? The first model generally goes by the name of "responsible fatherhood." The second idea is commonly referred to as "strengthening marriage."

Until recently, state and local governments focused nearly all of their efforts in this area on responsible fatherhood programs. Recently, however, momentum has shifted in the direction of marriage promotion.

Proponents of the shift argue that most responsible fatherhood programs simply intervene too late. "If the guy's not paying, he doesn't want to change," says Sara McLanahan, a professor at Princeton University's Office of Population Research. "Who knows when he last saw the child? He may have had two more different children with different women. It's way too far downstream."

Some responsible fatherhood advocates, however, worry that the new emphasis on marriage reflects federal pressure, not realistic thinking. "Learning how to have better parenting skills is a good thing and can add to an environment of stability," says Vicki Turetsky, an attorney at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy. "But the issues are more complicated than that. Economics, childhood trauma, substance abuse, health problems, it's trying to work two jobs and not having enough left over to work with kids. It's lots of things."

State and local governments have been given the job of sorting out these different strategies. And as policy makers look more closely at a whole range of social policy challenges, the effort to find a workable approach is taking on increasing urgency.

THE MISSING ELEMENT

Although responsible fatherhood programs didn't register with many policy makers until the late 1990s, the origins of the movement go back to the '80s, to men such as Joe Jones, in west Baltimore.

Like many of the movement's leaders, Jones arrived at his ideas through intense personal experience. As a young child, he grew up in a traditional, two-parent family. Then, when he was nine, his parents got divorced. Jones was devastated. He soon became a juvenile delinquent. By his late teens, he was a heroin addict. For years he was in and out of prison. By the mid-1980s, however, Jones had managed to kick his addiction and had found a job as an addiction counselor for pregnant women with the Baltimore City health department. As he went about his work, it became clear to him that a crucial element was being ignored.

"Men were out of the picture," Jones says. "As much effort as we were putting into supporting pregnant, substance-abusing women, they were going back home to a partner who was struggling. Their chances of maintaining sobriety were slim to none if they were in relationship with men who were struggling." But the men had no services to turn to. "It disturbed me," Jones says. "A lot of times when I talked to them one on one, they would break down."

By the late 1990s, state and local governments had begun to experiment with using welfare-to-work dollars and, in some cases, state funds, to try to help build responsible fatherhood programs. In Baltimore, the city health department helped Jones launch his own organization, the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development. Florida created the Noncustodial Parent Employment Project to offer fathers who were behind on their child support an opportunity to receive job training as an alternative to incarceration. In Tennessee, the state Department of Human Services teamed up with an innovative fatherhood program that placed married couples in low-income communities to "model" responsible behavior.

The Ford Foundation led an effort to create a nationwide network of 10 demonstration fatherhood programs. Four other major foundations plowed money into the field. The Hogg Foundation at the University of Texas sponsored a network of 11 demonstration programs in different settings statewide to test ways to turn non-contributing fathers into productive, if non-custodial, family members.

For all the good intentions and generous provision of resources, however, the responsible fatherhood movement didn't generate much in the way of positive results by 2000. The Ford Foundation initiative cost more than $20 million and produced 500 new jobs--a substantial five-figure sum for every job.

For responsible-fatherhood proponents, the failure to boost wages and employment was extremely disappointing. "In the main, the employment and training system does not function well for low-income males," says Ronald Mincy of Columbia University, who headed the Ford Foundation fatherhood efforts. "And if you can't get low-income men to contribute financially, the whole other thing falls apart." While programs did succeed in "smoking out" fathers who had money but were holding back on their child support payments, they showed little evidence of boosting fathers' earnings.

CRUCIAL MOMENTS

At that point, however, a new piece of social science research refocused attention on the fatherhood problem--and began to turn it in a different direction. This was the "Fragile Families and Child Well- Being" study, which published its first results in the spring of 2001. Unlike previous studies, Fragile Families interviewed mothers and fathers just at the moment when the woman was in the hospital to deliver her baby.

What the study found was surprising. Instead of feckless Don Juans and promiscuous women having casual sex, researchers discovered that 82 percent of the couples were romantically involved with each other at the time of birth. Seventy-four percent of unmarried mothers said the chances that they would marry the baby's father were "50-50" or better. Fathers were even more optimistic, with 90 percent expressing the belief that marriage was likely. In short, unmarried couples, including unmarried couples with little income--had traditional hopes and aspirations about living together and raising children.

That was the good news. The bad news was that very few couples went on to realize their hopes. One year later, just under 10 percent of these couples were married. A later study of low-income, unmarried parents in Louisiana found that while 65 percent of couples were in exclusive relationships at the time their child was born, only 40 percent were involved with each other five months later. Only 18 percent were living together.

To many researchers, the implication of the Fragile Families data was crystal clear. The way to help single parents, they concluded, wasn't to provide them with job training or wage enhancement after they had broken up. It was to be there for them at the crucial moments--in the days just before and after the birth of the child. This seemed particularly true for first-time parents who were living together at the time of birth. "If parents are romantically involved, which a large percentage are, you need to start right there and figure out how to make this relationship last," says Sara McLanahan, who directed the study.

One of the researchers who picked up on the new data was Wade Horn. Back in the late 1980s, Horn, a clinical psychologist and newspaper columnist, founded the National Fatherhood Initiative to, as he puts it, "reverse the cultural idea that fathers were no longer really necessary." After a decade of studies and experience with the reformed federal welfare system, Horn was even more convinced that the best way to involve fathers in the lives of their children was to encourage them to get married.

"There are millions of non-resident fathers who work every day and do a terrific job," says Horn. "But kids notice whether their father comes around four times a month or every time they come home." Currently, as assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Horn is well positioned to act on his family preservation beliefs. Since he arrived in 2001, HHS has aggressively reprogrammed money to support marriage education rather than non-custodial fatherhood initiatives. Now, HHS is field- testing what it calls the "Building Strong Families" program, aimed at producing a proven model that state and local governments can implement nationwide.

The concept has three components. First, couples are recruited by nonprofit organizations or county-based health centers. As part of the enrollment process, the couples are screened to determine what other services they might need, such as job training, housing, child care or mental health counseling. (A recent Houston study found that roughly a third of the low-income men who enrolled in fatherhood programs suffered from depression.) At that point, parents take part in a relationship class run by a facilitator. Most classes meet two hours a week for five or six months. Finally, a case manager continues to work with the couple for up to a year after completion of the course.

Pilot programs in the Building Strong Families initiative are currently running in Florida, Indiana and Texas. Later this year, additional pilots will get underway in Georgia, Louisiana and Maryland. Promoters of the idea are already excited about the early results.

ENGAGING COUPLES

"Couples were just absolutely incredibly engaged, very excited to be recognized as a couple, to get attention as a couple," says Robin Dion, a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research, a Washington, D.C.- based consulting firm that has helped to design the Building Strong Families program. "They found it fascinating to be able to sit in a room with a professional expert who knows something about how to make relationships work and be able to learn skills about how to communicate better, resolve problems, prevent fights, how to develop trust and commitment. All of these things are things that prior research has found to be associated with healthy marriage."

The Building Strong Families initiative walks a fine line between teaching relationship skills and promoting marriage. "We are not telling them to get married," says Dion. "We are giving them the skills they need should they choose to get married." However, Dion acknowledges that marriage, not just improved interpersonal skills, is the preferred outcome. "It's a little different," she says, "from a co-parenting model which takes as the premise that it's important for dad to be involved regardless of the relationship with the mother."

States and localities have reacted in different ways to the push from Washington to focus on relationships and marriage. Some, such as Florida, have been quick to shift their emphasis. Three years ago, Florida had a Commission on Responsible Fatherhood. Today, it has a Commission on Marriage and Family Support Initiatives. Others, such as New York, have been reluctant to switch, choosing instead to focus on boosting fathers' incomes through expansions of the earned income tax credit.

But even some of the most established outposts of "responsible fatherhood" thinking are re-examining their strategies. In Baltimore last year, Joe Jones convened his staff to debate whether the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development should move away from its traditional focus and toward relationship promotion. It made that choice with a highly symbolic decision: Two long-time program participants--a couple with six kids that had overcome addiction--were granted permission to hold a marriage ceremony in the center's offices. Jones's group is now expected to be one of the test sites for Building Strong Families.

During the 1990s, Massachusetts was another pioneer in responsible fatherhood programs. Its Office of Child Support Enforcement in Boston specialized in finding deadbeat fathers, pairing them up with case managers who could help them access services, and then enrolling them in peer support groups. Now, however, Boston is a $1.5 million test site for Building Strong Families, concentrating more of its efforts on couples rather than on troubled non-custodial fathers. "Typically, men walk in one door for services, and women walk into another door," says Richard Claytor, director of fatherhood initiatives for the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. "They are not typically connected as a family. This will give us a chance to work with the whole family."

Other states are responding to the new mood by softening some of the draconian child support provisions they enacted during the initial welfare reform years. In Illinois, the state child enforcement agency has worked with courts to suspend payment schedules when noncustodial fathers are incarcerated and forgive a portion of past arrearages upon completion of job training. California's Department of Child Support Services is rolling out similar programs that will offer men entering prison a chance to suspend child support payments as part of its effort to impose reasonable child support payment requirements.

In short, even without new federal funding, the realization that states need to find creative ways to alleviate the problem of absent fathers is taking root. And while the pendulum is clearly moving toward marriage promotion, at the state and local level, responsible fatherhood programs and initiatives to promote marriage tend to look less like ideological opposites and more like different facets of a common strategy.

"The thing worth noting about marriage promotion, it's really a prevention model of government involvement," says Elaine Sorensen, an economist at the Urban Institute. "The fatherhood program is not. It's a crisis model, reacting to a crisis." And prevention, among its other virtues, is always cheaper than crisis intervention at a later point.

But Sorensen also thinks that it would be a mistake to abandon the crisis model entirely. "As long as child support is there," she says, "we have the whole issue of noncustodial parents, and fatherhood programs are not going to be replaced. Are we going to give them tax support? Help them find a job? I don't see how it can go away."

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