‘Doing the Best I Can’: Fatherhood in the Inner City

July 1, 2013

It’s hard to find a more despised group than inner-city fathers who sire children they cannot -- or will not -- support.


Tony Loring of Washington is among those who've participated in federally funded fatherhood education efforts to become more of a presence in their children's lives.  (Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post)

A decade ago, I was involved in interventions that sought to improve nonresident fathers’ ties with their children. These were supported as part of an effort funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce infant mortality in Flint, Mich.

Although most of the work focused on young mothers and their children, we were frequently asked: “What are you doing for the fathers?” Many in the community were ambivalent about nonresident fathers. People were angry about the harm many of these men brought on others. Yet people also understood the economic beating these men were taking. Poorly educated, born a generation too late, they had limited job prospects when the bottom fell out of the auto economy. No one really knew how help them, or how to make them more successful partners and parents.

The trajectory of their relationships was especially saddening. As indicated by the bluntly named “Fragile Families” study, most unmarried fathers are closely involved, romantically or otherwise, during pregnancy and delivery. Then these relationships quickly fray. Within several years and often sooner, intimate bonds between parents are generally broken, casting dark shadows across their lives and those of their children.

Programs for nonresident fathers faced many challenges. These men say they love their kids, and are pained by their physical and emotional separation. Lacking the resources to contribute financially, not physically present to assume practical child-rearing tasks, many have no idea what they can really do. Depressingly few have seen effective and present fatherhood in their own lives. Many have difficult relationships with the mothers of their children. For understandable reasons, mothers’ families don’t always welcome a biological father’s sporadic or potentially disruptive intervention.

The human realities of these relations were rarely given their due in the culture-war battles of the 1980s and 1990s. For a time after the controversial 1965 Moynihan report, poverty researchers became skittish about discussing obvious pathologies associated with out-of-wedlock childbearing and welfare dependence. Social conservatives rushed in to fill the void, wrongly blaming essential and meager welfare programs for pathologies that were actually caused by broader economic and social forces.

Edin and Timothy J. Nelson’s just-released "Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City," considers the stories of the men themselves. It’s an essential book, based on interviews with 110 African American and white unmarried fathers who live in economically battered communities in the Philadelphia-Camden area. Reading these stories, I see the faces of wonderful young men I’ve worked with in public health and educational interventions. Yet these same faces and stories call to mind the fathers of these same youth — fathers whose failures and irresponsibility leave so many children neglected and adrift.

An enthusiastic blurb from journalist and commentator Bob Herbert praises the book for debunking “rampant stereotypes and misconceptions.” Edin and Nelson indeed chronicle many fathers for whom the arrival of a child becomes a redemptive and stabilizing force in otherwise chaotic lives. “I don’t know where I would be without my child,” is a common thought.

Take Lacey Jones, whose past includes a murder conviction “overturned on a technicality.” He now wakes every morning at 5 to make his 7 a.m. shift to support his fiancee, her daughter, and his 9-year-old child. There’s Andre, a high-schooler who skillfully fashions his daughter’s hair into twists, and many others.

These men love their kids, and they want to be involved fathers. Robert Lerman and Elaine Sorenson analyzed nationally representative data on men between the ages of 27 and 34 who’ve had children outside of marriage. Two-thirds were seeing at least one of these children at least weekly. Many of the others were married and living with a child who had been born within marriage.

Still, most of the men chronicled in this frank book fail most of their children. Liberals may be taken aback by the huge proportion of nonresident fathers laid low by involvement in crime, infidelity, heavy drinking or drug abuse. Most pregnancies are unplanned, accidental or “semi-planned” within haphazard and brief relationships:

Only rarely do such couples “fall in love,” get engaged, or get married before conceiving a first child together, though they may do so later on.…. Precious few men are consciously courting a woman they believe will be a long-term partner around the time that pregnancy issues a one-way ticket to fatherhood. Indeed there is little evidence that many were even attempting to discriminate much among possible partners based on who they felt would be the most suitable mother to their child.

Couples love their child, and so make a go of things. Yet as Edin and Nelson put things, “having a baby is not a symbol of love and commitment; instead pregnancy and birth are often the relationship’s impetus.” A shared child becomes the glue holding together a precarious relationship. Most of the time, this just isn’t enough.

For all sorts of reasons, relatives and peers on both sides are often unenthusiastic about the new relationship. Mothers — raising their game to meet the relentless responsibilities of infant care — begin expecting more, judging fathers against unsentimental standards many fail to meet. Fathers, unsure whether they are truly ready to “settle down,” usually do not regard the mother of their child as the sort of “soulmate” they envision eventually marrying.

Edin and Nelson note the resulting “self-fulfilling prophesy.”

If a man suddenly finds himself thrown together with a woman he barely knows and may not even like, if her rising expectations in the wake of the birth leaves her feeling it’s impossible to please her, and if he believes she views him as expendable if a better catch comes along, she will be seen as a poor source of commitment. Such a man will likely fail to invest—shape up, overlook differences, and be content at home—to the degree required.

Men who have virtually no money harbor understandable fears that a partner will “trade up” to some younger guy with a good job and a flashy car. One man is devastated to overhear the mother of his child joking derisively with friends about his crummy minimum-wage job.

One beautiful and sad section concerns ways that impoverished nonresident fathers compete with a mother’s boyfriend for the affections of their own child:

Just the other day, when Holloway had been lurking around in hopes of encountering Christine, he happened to witness the new man buying ice cream for his daughter. The rapport between the two was apparent. Holloway tears up when relating this memory. “I wanted to pull him to the side and say, “Look man, she’s my daughter. You don’t really gotta buy her ice cream. You know I do work sometimes. And this guy she’s with, he got kids somewhere else. He lost his family. So he gotta take mine…. Well he has the power to do that because he has a good job. He’s like a big shot.”

This isn’t the kind of book to provide concrete policy guidance, though some points are clear. Well-implemented measures such as parent training, contraceptive access and couples counseling could help these men and women. Higher alcohol taxes might delay or reduce many destructive behaviors. Such measures should certainly be pursued. These will surely leave many issues unaddressed. An improved Earned Income Tax Credit to support work among unattached men would be especially helpful.

"Doing the Best I Can" reinforces one’s instincts as a cultural conservative and an economic progressive. Despite the best of initial intentions, haphazard relationships that produce children rarely serve adults or children very well. Pretty quickly, most nonresident fathers leave mothers to bear the lion’s share of daily responsibilities and financial burdens associated with their new, shared child. Ironically, mens’ desire for a more worthy fatherhood experience puts them:

…at risk of repeating the series of nondecisions that bring yet another child into the world with a new partner. But once a father gets another try at ‘real’ fatherhood, how much time, energy, energy, and finances will he have to devote to that new role? How much will be left over for the kids he already has?

That’s no way to live. Yet it’s not the life these men have chosen, either. Many work hard at very low wages in day labor, construction and other arduous jobs. Others are willing, but can’t find the work. It’s often a hard-won victory when men at the very bottom of the economic ladder can support themselves, let alone support a partner and child.  When work disappears and millions of men find themselves economically superfluous, it’s not surprising that they find themselves at sea in other life roles, too.

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross professor at the School of Social Service Administration and co-director of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago. He is a nonresident fellow of the Century Foundation.

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