In 1965, 25 percent of black children were being raised in fatherless homes, and the situation was correctly characterized as a crisis. Today, the rate is three times that in many minority communities. Unfortunately, most proposed solutions to what is now an out-and-out catastrophe won’t work. For example, Congressman Danny Davis has just introduced the Julia Carson Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act, which calls for massive federal grants to promote fatherhood—a return to the failed poverty programs of the past. But the prevalence of ineffective approaches doesn’t mean that government and nonprofits can’t help change people’s attitudes about fatherlessness.
The absent father stands alone as the most reliable predictor of social and psychological trouble. Research by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that annual household income is below $30,000 for 65 percent of children in single-mother families, compared with 15 percent of children in two-parent families. Children raised in homes without fathers are more likely to run away, commit suicide, use drugs, be arrested, and engage in a host of other unfortunate—and sometimes deadly—behaviors. This is nothing new; even in the mid-1960s, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York realized that “for vast numbers of the unskilled, poorly educated city working class the fabric of conventional social relationships has all but disintegrated. . . . So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself.”
How might we create the conditions that would foster family reconnection and prevent, or at least diminish, destructive behavior? Here are three proposals that could make a difference, based on my own experience in placing tens of thousands of hard-to-place fathers in jobs. First, because many people remain ignorant of the relationship between fatherlessness and social pathology, the Obama administration could create a massive national awareness program highlighting it. The appropriate agencies—Health and Human Services, Justice, and Education, among others—would formulate a public-education campaign across all media as well as in schools, faith-based institutions, and criminal-justice agencies. Such a campaign worked wonders over the last two decades in changing the public’s attitude about the danger of smoking.
Second, local governments might sponsor programs modeled on a hugely successful crime-prevention program run by John Jay College professor David Kennedy. The program, which Kennedy deployed in High Point, North Carolina, used shame, threats, community pressure, and social support to reduce violent crime dramatically. Violent criminals were brought into a room filled with family, clergy, and social workers known to them, giving them the message that the community knew who they were and wouldn’t tolerate further crime. Then law enforcement officers conveyed the message that any more convictions would result in federal prison time, and social services were offered to offenders who were willing to change. A similar approach could encourage fathers to form relationships with their children, mothers to allow this to happen, and both men and women to avoid unwed pregnancies in the first place.
Third, nonprofit organizations might follow the example set by Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest from Arizona. Because our postmodern society has largely abandoned traditional male initiation rites—the major exception, unfortunately, seems to be in organized street gangs—Rohr created a five-day experience to simulate them. Over the past 14 years, he has led over 4,000 men through a transformative process. Much like the boot-camp approach that breaks soldiers down to rebuild them with a firm identity, Rohr’s simulated initiation process includes several key themes whose message is drilled into the participants, including that life is hard and that you aren’t all that important. The initiation then guides each man to encounter his “true self” through situations he doesn’t frequently find himself in—one-on-one focused meetings with a male mentor figure, periods of time alone in the desert for purposeful self-reflection, and finally a ceremonial rejoining of the intergenerational circle of men who have already been initiated. The Boy Scouts of America, the Boys and Girls Clubs, schools, and religious institutions might implement similar kinds of programs to initiate participants into a culture that provides mentoring and support, and, ultimately, promotes fatherhood.
Last Father’s Day, President Obama spoke about the devastating effects of absent fathers on communities. “How many in this generation are we willing to lose to poverty or violence or addiction?” he asked. The answer should be zero. When the speeches are finally over, what will the administration actually do?