Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The first father…

November 30, 2008 by  
Filed under Health, News, Weekly Columns

(Akiit.com) Obama could help the nation focus on strengthening black families, and fathers

Barack Obama’s agenda is groaning with big-ticket items, some that go to the top because they’re so important to the nation, some that get there because they’re important to the groups that helped him win. Some, particularly the economy, will keep him and his team busy and challenge every bit of imagination and intelligence and courage they can bring to the task.

There’s an issue that’s not on the official agenda, but should be: the state of many of the nation’s black families.

Is it audacious hope, or wishful thinking, that raises the prospect that President Obama might unwind the cycle of poverty and dependence, illiteracy and irresponsibility, that threatens another generation?

These concerns are not just part of a social agenda; they’re relevant to the economic agenda as well. The grind of poverty, inadequate education and job skills, illegitimacy and fragile family structures are the prism through which too many black families experience national economic trends. When these factors combine, as they do, even the good economic times aren’t so good. And the painful ones are more so.

Let it be clear: These problems aren’t exclusive to the black community, but they strike it hardest.

According to the Census Bureau, 25 percent of black families fall below the poverty line, compared to 10 percent to 11 percent of white, Asian and Hispanic families.

Many get there because they don’t have the education or training for the jobs that pay more than poverty wages. Or because they live in communities where jobs, transportation and good child care are hard to find.

Many get there for reasons that have to do with what constitutes a family. It’s easier to slide into poverty when there’s just one adult — and most black children spend at least part of their childhood in such homes. According to state birth records, in Virginia, two out of three African-American babies are born to unmarried mothers. This isn’t a problem one race owns, of course, but that rate is more than twice the rate for white mothers.

Families headed by mothers alone are likely to be poor. Their children are more likely to be raised around other poor people, in communities with bad schools and little exposure to the kind of expectations that would propel them to success. They’re more likely to drop out of school and to end up in prison.

The angle that Obama is particularly well suited to take on this is one that begs for more attention: black fatherhood.

One of the major contributors to the problems for so many children and their neighborhoods is the failure of too many black men to step up to their jobs as fathers, and the inability or reluctance of many black women to impose the conditions that would induce them to. Without demeaning the accomplishments of some single mothers and some part-time fathers, this must be recognized: Children fare better in two-parent families — or, at least, if their fathers play a large and supportive role in their daily lives. They fare better with parents who don’t become parents until they have the income to support children and the wherewithal to nurture them.

Children with two hands-on parents are twice as likely to get their fill of the emotional stability, guidance and discipline that makes for successful adults. And many sons and daughters who’ve never experienced responsible fatherhood firsthand find that it’s hard to replicate for your own children what you’ve never seen.

And so the cycle spins further downward.

If more African-American children had the advantage of two on-duty parents, their economic situation would improve. So would the nation’s, for it could tap into the rewards of their productivity in workplaces and on tax rolls. The national budget could shed some of the huge cost of dependence, of Medicaid and welfare, food stamps and subsidized housing, police and prisons.

This is a humanitarian issue, an economic issue, a social issue.

And an issue that Obama is uniquely prepared to champion. The absence of his own father cast a pall over his life that he’s explored in books and speeches. The nation has been captivated by the image he presents, with his own wife and daughters, of a devoted family man.

He knows what it’s like to be a father, and a fatherless child.

Obama made few forays into this territory while campaigning. But he did address it when he spoke last Father’s Day at a Southside Chicago church. He said, “We need families to raise our children. We need fathers to recognize that responsibility doesn’t just end at conception. … What makes you a man is not the ability to have a child. … It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.”

This isn’t a problem the federal government can fix, though it can help by rewarding the right behavior. As Obama put it, “We should be making it easier for fathers who make responsible choices and harder for those who avoid them.”

Indeed, the unintended consequences of federal actions — notably a welfare system that gave women incentives to have out-of-wedlock babies and even punished them financially if fathers acted responsibly — are a major foundation of today’s problems.

But Obama can use the bully pulpit of his presidency, his magnetism, his personal experience and his passion to focus attention on this issue. To inspire communities, families — and especially individuals who must take responsibility for their own actions.

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