Two things become obvious when Vice President Al Gore talks about restoring fatherhood--as he did the other day in a half-hour phone interview.
On the one hand, he cares deeply about the subject. He has been working on some aspect of it for many years now. He knows a good deal about it, and he knows how much it matters. On the other, he embodies the disconnect between what ought to be done and what government can effectively do.
"Disconnect" may overstate the point. It isn't that government can't do anything. It can enforce the law, and, says the vice president, a Gore administration would move strongly to use the law against so-called deadbeat dads.
"When we talk about child poverty, we have to talk about fatherhood," he said. "Forty percent of absent fathers aren't even under orders to pay child support, and of those who are, only one in four actually pays it. Child support payments could help to reduce poverty." He would enact new penalties--including jail time--for nonpayment and also try to induce credit card companies not to issue new cards or credit to "deadbeat dads" whose names the government would forward directly to the credit bureaus.
But it isn't just money that matters, he said, reeling off statistics with the smoothness of Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund. "Boys and girls without father involvement are twice as likely to drop out of school, twice as likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, twice as likely to end up in jail, and four times more likely to need help for emotional or behavioral problems.
"Encouraging and supporting responsible fatherhood is the critical next phase of welfare reform--one of the most important things we can do to end child poverty."
Gore the no-nonsense government administrator wants to mandate that responsibility. But Gore the originator (with his wife, Tipper) of a long string of "family reunion conferences" understands the limits of coercion.
"I really want to challenge the country to promote the active involvement of fathers--through congregations, through sports teams, through personal influence," he told me. "One fundamental truth goes unrecognized: Connecting with their children has a transformational power that can do more to change the lives of the men themselves than anything I can think of short of a genuine religious experience."
He's right about that. A number of fatherhood activists, including Joe Jones Jr. in Baltimore and Charles Ballard in Washington, have spoken of the transforming power of reconnecting men to their children. Even formerly "unemployable" men become employable because they become more mature, more reliable, more willing to work at menial or unpleasant jobs.
Gore wants to encourage that reconnection by nationalizing a version of the law recently adopted by Tampa Bay. "Pay or go to work," he calls it, noting that the law provides help in finding jobs for unemployed men who are under child-support orders. But it might as easily be called "pay or go to jail," since that is the ultimate sanction.
The problem is that the transforming commitment to children is more likely to come from places government can't reach: from influences as exalted as religious redemption and as lowly as shame induced by families and friends of the "deadbeats."
Gore knows all that--knows, too, that many of the fathers we describe as deadbeats are men who have been forcibly shut out of their children's lives--by vengeful mothers, cavalier judges and a public attitude that gives short shrift to absent fathers.
"I know about these situations," he said, "and I understand that these men suffer a good deal of emotional pain when they are denied access to their children. It is, I suppose, the flip side of what mothers feel when the court has ordered payments and the absent father doesn't make them. These are the kinds of hard eggs the government isn't very good at addressing."
And there are some aspects of the problem that government can't touch at all. I'm thinking of a friend of mine who has adopted this simple rule: "I will not have as a friend any man who does not support his children."
That simple and powerful statement of principle--of what is personally unacceptable--could, if it became more general, do more for child support than collection agencies and threats of jail ever could.