On Psychology

Jewish World Review March 16, 2000 /9 Adar 2, 5760

Dr. Wade Horn

President's Program for Fathers Misses Mark

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- SHORTLY AFTER THE PRESIDENT released his proposed 2001 budget, a friend of mine called me from a Governor's office in the midwest. "You must be pretty pleased," he opened confidently. "He's proposing a bunch of new money for fatherhood programs."

"Actually," I answered, "I think his fatherhood initiative does more harm than good."

"Really?" my friend replied incredulously, "But I thought you were in the fatherhood business."

My friend, of course, is correct. As President of the National Fatherhood Initiative, I am in the fatherhood business. And President Clinton did propose a bunch of new money for fatherhood programs -- $125 million to be exact. So why am I not jumping up and down with excitement over his new fatherhood program?

Let's begin with the good news. The President's budget, as have all presidents' budgets since, I think, George Washington's, includes a lot of "get tough on deadbeat dads" initiatives, including "booting" the cars of delinquent payers, intercepting gambling winnings to collect past-due child support, and denying passports to parents who owe $2,500 or more in child support.

Econophone Nothing wrong with getting tough on deadbeat parents. Any non-custodial parent who has the ability to help support financially his or her children and does not, gets no sympathy from me. Children don't ask to come into this world. When we become parents, we incur an obligation to do all we can to support our children, and that includes financial support. That obligation doesn't end simply because a marriage does -- or because a marriage doesn't happen in the first place.

But life is more complicated than is suggested by "deadbeat dad" rhetoric alone. Some non-custodial parents are more "dead broke" than "deadbeat." Others have not so much "walked away" as they have been "pushed away."

Interestingly, the President's budget takes a giant step toward recognizing these complexities, for in addition to efforts to "get tough on deadbeat parents," it also includes a program to help low-income, non-custodial parents -- mostly fathers -- get jobs, pay child support, and reconnect with their children.

So what's my problem? Sounds like a pretty good idea, doesn't it?

Well, not really. The problem with the President's fatherhood proposal is this: It punishes fathers who get married. Here's how.

Trakdata Suppose you are running a program under the President's proposal and a 24-year-old, unwed father walks into your office. He grew up in a low-income neighborhood, is under-educated, and marginally employed. But he is now a father and wants to do right by his child. He asks for your help getting a steady job so that he can better fulfill his child support obligations and wants to learn how to be a good dad. Can you help, he asks?

You bet, you reply. We have a wonderful program for you. We will help improve your job skills and find you a decent job. Once employed, we will provide you with an on-going supportive employment program to increase the likelihood that you will keep your job. And we also have a peer support program to help you learn the skills necessary to be an involved father.

Great, this young man says, sign me up.

Now imagine that soon after this young father leaves your office, another young man comes into the room. He, too, is 24-years-old and from a low-income neighborhood. He, too, is under-educated and marginally employed. He, too, is now a father and wants to do right by his child. Can you help, he asks?

Before you answer, "of course," imagine there is this one little difference between these two young men. Imagine the second guy is married to the mother and is living with his children. Under the President's proposal, you would have to say there's nothing you can do for him.

What, the guy answers, but my buddy was just in here. We live in the same neighborhood, earn the same amount of money, and our kids are the same age. How come you can help him, but not me?

Well, you answer, you're married. He's not. This program is for low-income, non-custodial fathers only.

What, this second young man asks, do I have to do to get the same services?

Your reply -- if you are honest -- would have to be this: Divorce the mother and move out.

The reason you would have to answer this way is because the President's proposal, well-meaning though it might be, limits eligibility to low-income, non-custodial fathers. Programs funded under such an approach would have to hang up a sign at the door saying, "Married fathers need not apply." I can't think of anything that would be worse for fathers, mothers, and children than that.

To be fair, the President has not yet submitted legislative language for his fatherhood initiative. There is still time for the President and his advisors to rethink this ill-conceived idea to restrict eligibility to non-married, low-income fathers.

But unless a fix is made, making both single and married low-income fathers eligible, this proposal is worse than nothing. We've seen the devastation that 70 years of welfare largely restricted to unmarried mothers has wrought. It would be a shame if we spend the next 70 years repeating that mistake with fathers.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 2000, Dr. Wade F. Horn