The Fatherhood Demotion

One of the lesser-reported provisions of a set of conservative welfare reforms in Congress includes an attempt to encourage fathers who do not live with their children to participate more fully in raising them.

The fatherhood programs that House Republicans are proposing would receive little federal funding — $20 million, compared to the $200 million in marriage-promotion programs included in the same legislation. But these fatherhood programs, however meager, spotlight a neglected aspect of welfare policy. The problem is that the programs emphasize fatherhood in the context of marriage at the expense of economic issues.

With a focus on parenting classes, relationship skill-building and household budgets, the House fatherhood legislation instead needs to do more to address poverty and unemployment, according to Vicki Turetsky, senior staff attorney at the Center for Law and Social Policy.

"Stable families and economic stability are two sides of the same coin," says Turetsky, who favors the Senate version of the legislation, which would give states more flexibility to include job training services in the mix of initiatives. "It's our view that if low-income fathers are to carry out their responsibilities, both financial and emotional, they need some support in obtaining and retaining a toe-hold in the formal economy."

The Senate welfare reforms, which would spend $75 million on fatherhood programs to the House's $20 million, have inched along without gaining much momentum. Meanwhile, the House twice passed welfare legislation, which the Administration backs, since 2002. (Welfare authorizations for the system's overhaul in 1996 expired in 2002, prompting numerous extensions, the latest of which is expected this month.)

The '96 reforms focused largely on mothers -- getting them off welfare rolls and into jobs, which were more plentiful during the boom years. Welfare caseloads have decreased dramatically, though advocates for newly independent families say that low-wage work has not brought prosperity, but rather poverty, to single mothers and their children. Fatherhood issues, in contrast, have received relatively scant attention, until recently.

Teaching fathers to be involved with their children and steering them towards marriage are worthwhile goals, and might be achievable in some cases, Turetsky says. For example, a four-year study on "fragile families" conducted by Princeton University showed that half of unmarried mothers are living with the father of their children -- and the partners are committed to each other -- at the time their child is born.

Many experts believe that marriage promotion in these cases, early on, could prove effective. Once a couple has separated and the partners have moved into other relationships, however, the marriage approach has limited value, Turetsky says. In these cases, responsible fatherhood, rather than marriage, needs to be emphasized.

In addition to urging that fatherhood programs go beyond marriage alone, many welfare policy experts are refining their thinking on the issue of child support. Aggressive child support enforcement is effective when fathers have the means to make payments, but it's proving ineffective for low-income fathers who do not remain reliably employed. In fact, unrealistically high amounts owed for child support can actually deter low-income fathers' involvement in supporting their kids.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, half of all fathers who owe child support are paying it. Of the fathers who do not pay, half lack the resources to pay support, and enforcement authorities don't distinguish between which fathers have resources and which do not.

As a result, a low-wage worker who owes thousands in child support debt will, upon taking a job, see his paycheck diminished to negligible amounts. Many fathers simply choose to stay in the informal economy, whether legal or illegal, and give diapers or cash to the mother of their children as they can and wish to.

"Poor fathers are routinely required to pay much higher proportions of their income than middle- and upper-income fathers, and many are required to pay unreasonable amounts of arrearages (past due child support)," argues a briefing from the Brookings Institute. "These unrealistic arrearages arise because child support agencies and court base these payments not on fathers' actual earnings, but on their 'presumptive' earnings, e.g., earned at some point in the past."

In other words, fathers can be held responsible for an amount based on their salary, even after they lose the job.

According to Brookings, child support payments should be calculated as a percentage of the father's income, so that obligations would decline if the father is in jail or unemployed and would go up when his earnings rise.

Another child support-related issue is what to do when a father makes support payments to a mother who receives welfare. Typically, child support paid to a woman on welfare is collected by the state as reimbursement, but this arrangement gives fathers little incentive to pay support.

"Research demonstrations that when money goes to kids, fathers pay more and work underground less. Children do better," Turetsky says.

Fatherhood programs exist in small numbers around the country. But Turetsky worries they are floundering in the lackluster economy, or that they might not survive the federal budget crunch.

"I think the budget is the elephant in the room right now," Turetsky says. "The bigger problem is it's hard to get traction for these provisions. There are not a lot of groups advocating for these changes. If you look at lobbying around child care, there is a cast of many. Most members of Congress have heard from a constituent. Low-income fathers don't have an organized network."

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