Magazine article The American Prospect

Fatherhood Matters

Magazine article The American Prospect

Fatherhood Matters

Article excerpt

On the campaign trail, Vice President Al Gore recently gave a speech with the following central claim: "Promoting responsible fatherhood is the critical next phase of welfare reform and one of the most important things we can do to reduce child poverty." Five years ago, the question of how important fathers are to the well-being of their children was scarcely on the public agenda. That's changed. The fact that a leading candidate for the presidency delivered a policy speech on the issue is one indication of how much momentum the fatherhood movement has gained.

Great numbers of American children are growing up apart from their fathers. There is a now a wider acknowledgment that fathers ought to play an important part in their children's lives beyond their role as breadwinners. After decades of debate about whether growing up with a single parent is harmful to a child, the key rallying point of the fatherhood movement is the belief that every child needs the love and support of a responsible father.

Interest in fatherhood issues has been bipartisan and wide-ranging. The emergence of the Promise Keepers, an evangelical Christian men's group that draws thousands of men to its rallies in stadiums and sports arenas, is one expression of the religious right's recent emphasis on encouraging men to be better husbands and fathers. Within the social policy research community, the publication in 1994 of Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur's book Growing up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps provoked scholars to re-examine the benefit a child receives from having a father present. McLanahan and Sandefur argued persuasively that "growing up with only one biological parent frequently deprives children of important economic, parental, and community resources, and that these deprivations ultimately undermine their chances of future success." Around the same time, David Blankenhorn published Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem. Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, advanced a conservative critique that blasted American cultural and social institutions for undermining the father's role in the family and weakening the bond between men and their children.

The progressive Families and Work Institute supports the Fatherhood Project, an initiative designed to examine the future of fatherhood and promote greater involvement by fathers in child rearing. On Capitol Hill, Republican Representative Nancy Johnson reintroduced the Fathers Count bill to the House with the purpose of allowing states to use funds from their welfare block grants to support community-based "responsible fatherhood" initiatives. The bill passed in the House in November and was awaiting Senate consideration early this year.

Differing perspectives on the fatherhood issue have led to uneasy alliances as well as heated debate. The collected volumes The Fatherhood Movement: A Call to Action and Lost Fathers: The Politics of Fatherlessness in America illustrate some points of agreement as well as tensions within the movement. Conservative writers--such as Blankenhorn, David Popenoe, Maggie Gallagher, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead--tend to criticize changes in mores and attitudes toward divorce, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing as being responsible for family breakdown. They encourage marriage as the best way to promote responsible fatherhood. The notion that the cultural upheaval of the 1960s has enabled adults to indulge in a selfish pursuit of individual happiness that often comes at the expense of children is a familiar refrain of the conservative critique. According to Popenoe, "Large segments of the population have come to regard pure `self-fulfillment' as their dominant life goal, pushing aside such traditional `Victorian' values as self-sacrifice, commitment to others, and institutional obligation." The "family values" position is succinctly articulated by Senator Dan Coats, who states in an essay in The Fatherhood Movement, "Government policy should communicate a clear, public preference for marriage and family on matters such as public housing, the tax code, family planning, and divorce law. …

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