Magazine article The Public Interest

Fathers and Welfare Reform

Magazine article The Public Interest

Fathers and Welfare Reform

Article excerpt

America is embarking upon a dramatic new course in the way it provides assistance to our nation's poorest families and their children. Recently enacted federal welfare reforms have altered both the purpose and the form of the nation's principal cash-assistance program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Retitled Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the program is no longer to serve as a long-term replacement for parents' earnings. Rather, aid is now to be used to promote long-term self-sufficiency. The new law also gives states the responsibility for determining virtually all the standards and requirements for their TANF programs. Although in most states dramatic changes have not yet happened, the opportunity for revolutionary reform has never been greater.

To date, reforms have focused almost exclusively upon welfare-to-work strategies. But if America is to succeed at this grand new experiment, only part of what needs to be done involves promoting work among welfare recipients. Despite being viewed primarily as a poverty issue, welfare really stands at the center of a broader social conflagration even more profound than the vital issue of economic self-reliance: the demise of marriage and the increasing disappearance of fathers from families. Our children do need working parents, but they need their fathers even more.

Rather than simply helping single-parent households figure out a way to generate earnings in the absence of a father, state reforms must find ways to bring more fathers back into (or into for the first time) the lives of their children. In this article, we lay out strategies for how states can make fatherhood and marriage explicit and integral parts of welfare reform.

Don't forget fatherhood

Families are the primary institutions through which we protect and nurture our children, and upon which free societies depend for establishing social order and promoting individual liberty and fulfillment. However, over the past several decades the United States has been experiencing a dramatic decline in the institution of marriage and family. Children are increasingly raised outside of two-parent families. More precisely, there has been a decline of fatherhood, for when marriages fail, or when children are born out of wedlock and a two-parent family never forms, it is almost always fathers who are absent. The absence of fathers has, in turn, severely increased the life risks faced by their children.

As state officials launch new welfare reforms, they must not lose sight of the larger issues of fatherhood and marriage. At the least, this requires addressing the ability of fathers to financially support their children. But fathers are important to the well-being of children for far greater reasons than merely the economic. Their involvement as nurturers, disciplinarians, teachers, coaches, and moral instructors is also critically important to the healthy development and maturation of children.

Given the importance of the father's role, welfare reform must advance policies that make marriages more secure and out-of-wedlock childbearing and single parenting less frequent. This is not to say that all fathers are good for their children and that all marriages should be saved. Separations, and even divorce, are sometimes necessary. But despite this, the widespread trend toward fatherlessness must be reversed, and welfare reform is an important place to start reversing it.

The problem is that strategies for promoting fatherhood and marriage are, to a very large extent, in conflict with those that seek to help single mothers achieve self-sufficiency through work. Indeed, a welfare system that helps single mothers become employed, but ignores the need to promote fatherhood and marriage, may only lead to more single parenting by mothers. Yet, despite increasing public concern about the problems of illegitimacy and fatherlessness, most welfare-reform efforts currently focus almost exclusively on moving unwed mothers into the paid labor force. …

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