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PERSPECTIVES ON FATHERHOOD : Between Haves and Have-nots: Dad : We need a credible national agenda to reverse the trend of fathers being superfluous to family life.

June 20, 1993|DAVID BLANKENHORN | David Blankenhorn is president of the Institute for American Values in New York

The United States is becoming an increasingly fatherless society. A generation ago, an American child could reasonably expect to grow up with his or her father. Today, an American child can reasonably expect not to.

Fatherlessness is now approaching parity with fatherhood as a defining feature of American childhood. Tonight, more than one-third of our nation's children will go to sleep in homes in which their fathers do not live. Before they reach age 18, more than half of our nation's children are likely to spend at least a significant portion of their childhood living apart from their fathers. Never before in our nation's history have so many children been voluntarily abandoned by their fathers.

Consider this forecast. After the year 2000, as people born after 1970 emerge as an increasingly large proportion of our working-age adult population, the United States will be a nation divided into two groups, separate and unequal. The two groups will work in the same economy, speak a common language and remember the same national history. But they will live fundamentally divergent lives. One group will receive basic benefits--psychological, social, economic, educational and moral--that are denied to the other group.

The fault line dividing them will not be race, religion, class, education or sex. It will be patrimony. One group will consist of those who grew up with the daily presence and provision of fathers. The other will consist of those who did not. Here is the current scale of the problem: The two groups will be roughly the same size.

As a cultural ideal, our inherited understanding of fatherhood is under siege. Men in general, and fathers in particular, are increasingly viewed as superfluous to family life. Masculinity, especially among elites, is widely viewed with suspicion and even hostility.

In short, we are changing our minds about the role of men in family life. The question is simple: Do children need fathers? Increasingly, our answer is "no," or at least "not necessarily." Few value shifts in this century are as consequential as this one. At stake is who our children will be and what kind of society we will be.

Is there a credible national agenda for reversing the trend of fatherlessness? Here are some ideas:

* Strengthen the obligations of fathers to their children. Every child deserves a father. At a minimum, for example, all levels of our society must insist that no father, regardless of his circumstances, can ignore his financial obligation to his child. More broadly, we should expand efforts such as Cleveland's National Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Development, which powerfully conveys to young unmarried fathers the meaning and importance of effective fatherhood.

* Identify the father of every child born in the United States. In about 75% of out-of-wedlock births, the father is never legally identified. States should approach this issue with more seriousness. For example, perhaps fathers who do not acknowledge their paternity, as well as mothers who do not identify the fathers of their children, should be denied eligibility for public assistance.

* Strongly discourage unwed fatherhood. Parents, religious leaders, educators, legislators, entertainers, sports stars and others should convey the clear message to men that unwed fatherhood is socially destructive and morally wrong. In recent decades, our society has changed its mind about the acceptability of out-of-wedlock birth. Today, 28% of all births occur to unmarried mothers and fathers. It is time to change our minds again.

* Strengthen marriage. Marital counseling can help, especially if it is biased in favor of keeping marriages intact. Religious organizations should recommit themselves to focusing on fatherhood and marriage, as research shows a correlation between religious commitment and effective fatherhood. For example, to be married in a religious setting, couples should be required to participate in premarital counseling.

* Reform marriage laws to emphasize the social importance of marriages that endure. In cases of divorce, we should establish "children first" legislation. To help remove child custody as a bargaining chip for divorcing couples, legislatures should adopt the "primary caretaker" rule: a presumption in favor of granting custody to the parent who is already providing most of the day-to-day child care. Finally, legislatures should consider moving away from easy, no-fault divorce, especially when the divorce is contested and minor children are involved.

* Replace the current welfare system, which penalizes responsible fatherhood by subsidizing unwed motherhood. Over a five-year period, we should eliminate Aid to Families with Dependent Children and replace it with an expanded earned income-tax credit, which helps low-wage workers. In addition, we should guarantee opportunity for employment--if necessary, through public works projects and community service--for all those in need.

* Form organizations to strengthen fatherhood. Fathers need to organize themselves to define and defend effective fatherhood. The goal of such efforts would be a grass-roots social movement aimed at invigorating fatherhood.

I do not pretend, of course, that this list is exhaustive or definitive. But the real issue is not the absence of strategies. The issue is the absence of principle. On this Father's Day, do we believe that children need fathers?

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