Low-Income Fathers and "Responsible Fatherhood" Programs: A Qualitative Investigation of Participants' Experiences

Article excerpt

Low-Income Fathers and "Responsible Fatherhood" Programs: A Qualitative Investigation of Participants' Experiences*

The authors present the voices of 20 low-income fathers, all participants in a Responsible Fatherhood (RF) program in a large urban area. A hermeneutic phenomenological methodology was used to document participants' memories of becoming fathers, explain participants' perceptions of the benefits and the barriers to remaining involved with the program, and share participants' suggestions for program improvement. The results provide a preliminary evaluation of the program's services, and we discuss how these findings are helpful to future programmatic and policy initiatives.

Key Words: fathering, program evaluation, qualitative research methods, Responsible Fatherhood programs.

Since the 1970s, the issue of fathering and father involvement has generated considerable interest within the social sciences (see Lamb, 1997; Marsiglio, Amato, Day, & Lamb, 2000, for reviews). A growing body of literature has situated fatherhood in an historical context (LaRossa, 1997), explored the meaning of fathering to different groups of men (e.g., Allen & Doherty, 1996; Silverstein, Auerbach, Grieco, & Dunkel, 1999; Silverstein & Quartironi, 1996), documented what fathers do to care for children (Aldous & Mulligan, 1998; National Institute of Child Health & Human Development [NICHD] Early Child Care Research Network, 2000), and described the ways fathers contribute to children's well-being (Amato, 1998; Pleck, 1997). Although debate remains over whether fathers are necessary for positive developmental outcomes (Blankenhorn, 1995; Popenoe, 1996; Silverstein & Auerbach, 1999), it is commonly accepted that actively involved, "responsible" fathers significantly contribute to children's lives.

Multiple factors likely precipitated the increased attention to fathers and the effect of responsible fathering on children's well-- being. Changing gender roles and women's increased rates of participation in the paid labor force prompted fathers to assume different parenting responsibilities than even a generation ago, while the increase in divorce, remarriage, and nonmarital births created new contexts-and sometimes new challenges-for the development of father-child relationships. Further, it appears that the social and political interest in economically disadvantaged fathers is largely based on concerns over the prevalence of single-parent families and the disproportionately high rates of poverty among female-headed households. For example, 46% of single-parent families live below the poverty line, as opposed to 10% of two-parent families, and 85% of the 1997 welfare caseload was comprised of single mothers and their children (U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means, 1998). From a policy perspective, father involvement largely has been viewed as a way of reducing child poverty rates and helping families to transition off of public assistance. This view is evident in the explicit goals of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities and Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), that included reducing out-of-wed-- lock pregnancies and encouraging marriage and the formation of two-parent families.

Consequently, there has been an influx of social policies and programs designed to promote "responsible" fathering since the mid-1990s, particularly within economically disadvantaged communities. These programs share the common goals of promoting men's financial and emotional involvement in their children's lives. However, father-focused programs often reflect different underlying values and vary considerably "in both the specific outcomes they attempt to achieve and the activities they undertake to achieve them" (Lewin Group, 1997, p. 4). Some programs emphasize marriage as a means to connect fathers to their children, whereas others focus on enhancing fathers' human capital by providing them with child development and child guidance instruction, education and job training, and support groups (Tamis-Lamonda & Cabrera, 1999). …

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