Barack Obama’s recent call for responsible fatherhood is welcome, overdue — and misleadingly incomplete.
That America’s fathers need to embrace their most important role is no secret. Activist fathers have been trying to make the same claim for decades, without much success.
Not all fathers are trying to be good dads, it goes without saying. But neither are all absent by choice, as Obama’s message implied.
His plea to fathers came on Father’s Day, a time we usually reserve for praising good men. Noting the plague of fatherless homes, he called on fathers who have abandoned their responsibilities to act like men, not boys.
We pause briefly to ponder the kind of response Obama might have received had he decided to criticize negligent moms on Mother’s Day. No one in his right mind would do such a thing, but we’re so accustomed to dissing dads that even a Father’s Day reprimand leaves America’s eyelashes unruffled.
Double standards are sometimes allowed for the greater good. We cut Obama slack because his message is so urgent. We also know that the African-American community has been hardest hit by father absence. In Obama’s words:
We know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled — doubled — since we were children. We know the statistics — that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.
Obama is right on all of the above, but the stats are even worse. More than 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock. Since 1960, we’ve tripled the number of American children living in fatherless homes, from 8 million to 24 million. The population as a whole increased just 1.7 times during that period.
What Obama fails to mention is that the problem of absent fathers, especially in the black community, is tied in part to well-intentioned social programs such as those the presumptive Democratic nominee intends to expand — domestic violence prevention and child support collections.
As I point out in my book, Save the Males: Why Men Matter; Why Women Should Care, cracking down on deadbeats is one of those guaranteed applause-getters, but most of the fathers of whom Obama is speaking make less than $10,000 a year — or are unemployed.
Throwing them in jail won’t help children much, either financially or psychologically. The truth, meanwhile, seems unwelcome in political circles: Most employed men pay their child support in full and on time, and always did, without government prodding.
Similarly furthering the public impression that only men are guilty of domestic violence is counterproductive if the goal is truly to bring fathers home. That’s because as the system is currently set up, men lose all legal rights to home and children if a woman charges assault. The accused is guilty until proven innocent.
Clearly, the state has a compelling interest in protecting women and children from abusive men — where they exist. But not all charges are legitimate and the state’s punitive powers, permitted without due process, are mind-boggling to consider. Once the system is engaged and injunctions issued, even innocent fathers are unlikely to see much of their children.
On Mother’s Day, we didn’t hear much about women initiating domestic violence, including child abuse, though some studies show that they do more often than men. That’s not a popular statistic for the good reason that women more often than men suffer grave injury and are killed in physical disputes.
Those two dueling facts highlight the lose-lose nature of the domestic violence debate. But if prevention of violence and preservation of the family are indeed our goals, then the solution involves focusing on the causes of family violence, including women’s role, not promising to make things tougher only on fathers.
Changing the system won’t be easy, but Obama is uniquely positioned to make a difference in the conversation. He should begin by saying that bringing fathers back into the family means ending the demonization of men and the culture’s trivialization of fatherhood.
That would be a change we could believe in.
– Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist and author of Save the Males: Why Men Matter; Why Women Should Care.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group