Ron Mincy addressed the effects of fatherlessness at a forum titled "Connecting Fathers and Families" at the Thurgood Marshall Center on Monday. The program at the former YMCA building was organized by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and underwritten by the Freddie Mack Foundation.
Mincy summarized new data about the paternal influence on the mother's prenatal care, a father's involvement with his baby one year after its birth and in the child's education.
Fathers, particularly married fathers, play an important role in reducing smoking and drinking among expectant mothers, the professor said. But this influence decreases "as the relationship becomes more tenuous."
Economic factors play a role in relationships.
The key variable affecting whether a father is involved in his child's life a year after the baby's birth is whether the mother wanted to marry the father at the time of birth, Mincy said.
If the mother wanted to marry the father, the man's involvement increased dramatically. Of the men the mothers wanted no involvement with, only 30 percent remained highly involved with their children one year after the baby's birth.
Among blacks, a man's economic situation determines whether a woman wants to marry the father of her child, Mincy said. Employed men have a 300 percent advantage over their jobless brethren.
But even if a man has a job, black mothers are still 15 percent less willing than women in other populations to marry the father of their child.
Black married fathers behave as well as any others, Mincy said, but only about 11 percent of black fathers are married to their children's mother one year after the child's birth. With 70 percent of black babies now born out of wedlock, Mincy said, the likelihood is low that their fathers will be involved in their education.
The good news is that students do better and are better behaved if even non-custodial fathers maintain involvement in their schoolwork. "It's not just contact," Mincy said, "it's what fathers actually do."
The United States has undergone a longstanding retreat from marriage, the professor said. The policy problem is figuring out how to increase marriage and marriage prospects. So far "nothing trumps the economic status" of the man, he said.
Theodora Ooms, senior policy analyst at Center for Law and Social Policy, agreed that the retreat from marriage was a national problem. Thirty percent of U.S. babies are born to unwed mothers, she said.
Ooms said a good marriage was the surest path to responsible fatherhood, and policymakers should "stop tiptoeing around the 'M' word." Ooms outlined what she thinks are six causes of the retreat from marriage.
(1) Women's entry into the labor force. (This is not so relevant for blacks, she said, because black women have always had jobs.)
(2) The disruptive effect of the old welfare system, which paid benefits only to households without men.
(3) The sexual revolution and the decline of "shotgun marriages."
(4) Among blacks, the shortage of men with so many dead or imprisoned.
(5) Relationships between men and women now are freighted with unrealistic expectations, especially that the partner is supposed to make you happy.
(6) Increasingly, fewer and fewer people have witnessed the ups and downs of intact marriages in which the partners work things out.
Nevertheless, Ooms said, marriage is still held in very high esteem, even where marriage rates are low.
It's not easy to reverse trends, the policy analyst said, and no one program will work to promote healthy marriages. However, it is important to target couples right before the time of birth.
DeAndre Davis, 19 and single, is expecting to become a father in May. He told the forum that he had never even seen a picture of his father. He reflected on how difficult it was for him not to be able to tell schoolmates about his father.
Davis said he is sure he would have made better decisions with the guidance of a father. His mother had six other kids to care for, he said.
Young fathers have nowhere to go to talk about their situations, Davis said, suggesting a program reminiscent of Vietnam veterans' "rap centers."
"God blessed me with a child, and I am going to make the best of it," he concluded to applause.
Moderating was the DLC chairman, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who has been a proponent of responsible fatherhood since his days as Indiana governor. In his opening remarks, the senator said that men have been irresponsible and women have been heroic.
Rep. Julia Carson, D-Ind., took another approach. Many "deadbeat" fathers are actually "dead broke," she said. Carson said she knows it's not all men's fault. Some mothers accept child support but refuse to grant fathers access to their children, she said, and some women drive a wedge between children and their fathers.
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