Stateline Story

Long Neglected, Poor Dads Now In Policy Spotlight

  • June 16, 2000
  • By Stateline Staff

In and out of jail, often unemployed, sometimes drug-addicted, they are the nation's least respected: the young, absent fathers of children on welfare.

For decades, policy makers have either ignored or scorned them, treating them as social misfits unwilling to hold a steady job and support their children.

Now, poor, unmarried dads are finally getting attention. With the support of the Republican Congress, the Clinton Administration and the states are starting to devote significant, albeit still limited, resources to understanding and helping these young men.

Today, in Baltimore and dozens of other cities around the country, young fathers can turn for the first time to government agencies for help, provided they are willing to pay child support. Counselors will get them into drug treatment, help them find a job, mediate disputes with mothers of their children and even show them how to mix baby formula.

These programs are eroding stereotypes about these men -- many of them are more desperate for a connection to their children than experts believed -- but they are also laying bare a multitude of problems.

"Most of them are frightened. Most of them are scared. They don't know where they are going to sleep tonight. They are dead-broke," said Michael Bernstein, director of Florida's Non-Custodial Employment Project. As researchers have begun to focus on low-income, non-custodial dads, they have compiled a host of grim statistics. On average, they earn just $8,000 a year. About 70 percent have been arrested. Sixty percent lack a high school diploma or G.E.D. More than half did not live with their own fathers when they were growing up.

Ori Shabazz of Baltimore, Md. was once one of those men "addicted to the subculture lifestyle," as he says, before counselors approached him three years ago and started talking to him about his children.

By that time, Shabazz had five kids. He was paying some of the bills, he says, but that was about it. "I'd come for 15 or 20 minutes and play with them," he said.

"I thought I could be a proper parent. As my two teenage daughters are beginning to grow, I realize I wasn't there enough. I left all of that to their mothers."

Within months of his encounter with the counselors , Shabazz was enrolled in a nationally recognized program called Young Fathers/Responsible Fathers, where he learned the basics of parenting, from discipline to diaper-changing.

Today, he has moved his family away from his old neighborhood, given up the "lifestyle" and, he says, taken a much more active role in his children's lives.

Since it began in 1994, Young Fathers/Responsible Fathers has received wide acclaim for its achievements. More important, the program has become well known on the street, says coordinator Anthony Williams. Counselors no longer have to pound on doors for volunteers. For the next six-month session in north Baltimore, 250 men are competing for 150 slots, Williams said.

Two things bring most men to YF/RF: drug treatment and jobs. Williams says he can usually get those who come to the program addicted -- and more than half of them do -- into a treatment program within a week. After they clean up, they get help finding a job.

Considered a national leader in promoting responsible fatherhood, Maryland is now spending $3 million a year on the effort. Including YF/RF, there are five programs for non-custodial dads in Baltimore City funded with a combination of city, state and federal dollars and grants from the Ford Foundation.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) of New York City, every state is now offering some programs for fathers. NCCP cites Florida, Indiana and Virginia, as well as Maryland, as the states that have taken the most coordinated approaches.

Among recent developments:

  • Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and North Carolina's Jim Hunt are the latest to announce major fatherhood initiatives. In April, Missouri's Gov. Mel Carnahan hosted a statewide conference on the issue.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is supporting programs in the states that will help fathers who pay child support secure visitation privileges. It is also funding experimental programs, including a Baltimore program called Partners for Fragile Families, that seek to turn low-income dads into steady wage-earners.
  • Last year, HHS, together with Maryland, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio launched a national television ad campaign, urging men to spend time with their children.
  • In Congress, bills are making their way through the House and Senate that would fund even more fatherhood programs and rework child support laws to ease the debts of some low-income dads.

At their core, most of the publicly funded fatherhood programs share the goals of Maryland's Young Fathers/Responsible Fathers: to transform these men into reliable workers so that they can provide consistent financial support for their children and help keep them off the welfare rolls.

Some experts trumpet marriage as the ultimate goal, but for the most part, states and the federal government are shying away from that philosophy.

Florida is placing a strong emphasis on collecting child support. Under a program begun in Tampa and now expanded to other cities, delinquent dads can avoid jail by enrolling in the Non-Custodial Employment Project.

According to Michael Bernstein, NCEP's director, Florida has already collected $1.00 in child support through the program for every $.50 it has invested.

All of these programs are so new no one really knows how well they will work over the long term. which runs programs in the Kansas City area to reconnect fathers with their children in exchange for child support payments. "We need a full army of social workers, helpers, professionals because of the complex issues."

But, Canfield and others say, the costs to society are too high not to try. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, children of single mothers, particularly mothers who never married, are much more likely to grow up poor and much more likely to rely on welfare than children raised in two-parent households. They are twice as likely to drop out of high school and twice as likely to spend time in jail.

Teenaged girls who do not know their fathers are more than twice as likely to get pregnant and 50 percent more likely to commit suicide. Boys without fathers are 63 percent more likely to run away and 37 percent more likely to use drugs.

"Hands down, it's an excellent investment," said Stacy Rodgers, who oversees Maryland's fatherhood programs for the Department of Human Services. "There shouldn't even be a question of whether its cost effective. It's absolutely necessary."