When Daniel Patrick Moynihan called black fatherlessness "the fundamental weakness of the Negro community" in a report 34 years ago, he was excoriated by many black leaders, who felt the issue only distracted attention from the more pressing problems of racism and the lack of opportunity for blacks.
Times have changed. Yesterday, a diverse coalition of policymakers joined forces behind a policy statement calling for a range of new initiatives aimed at reconnecting estranged African American fathers to their children, providing fresh evidence of a growing consensus around an issue that once fostered only division. It is just one of a number of recent proposals from across the political spectrum to address an issue once deemed too sensitive for public debate.
The statement, which grew out of a conference late last year at Morehouse College, urges Congress to provide $2 billion to support the wide range of grass-roots fatherhood programs proliferating around the country. It also calls on African American leaders to "recognize the high priority of restoring the black family" and called on civil rights organizations to move the issue to the top of their agendas.
At the time of the Moynihan report, a third of black children lived in single-parent homes. Now, 70 percent of African American children are born to unmarried mothers and 80 percent will spend substantial time without a father present. Regardless of race, some 40 percent of all American children live in homes without their biological fathers, the Morehouse report says.
Such statistics have long been a source of fractious debate. Conservatives tended to blame the problem on cultural and moral failures, while liberals have typically argued that the situation is more complex and largely attributable to shrinking economic opportunities in poor neighborhoods.
But the gap between these views appears to be narrowing, as activists of varying political views focus on pragmatic solutions. "You can be about fathers without signing on to a whole conservative agenda," said Ronald Mincy, a Ford Foundation vice president, who oversees the foundation's funding of fatherhood programs and is a supporter of the Morehouse statement.
The role of fathers, particularly among the poor, began taking on new importance after Congress rewrote the federal welfare laws in 1996. Since then, fatherhood programs have developed into a crucial component of the nation's social policy, with hundreds of programs aimed at fathers springing up across the country.
"We catalogued maybe 200 fatherhood programs around the country about five years ago. Now easily there are 2,000," said Wade F. Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative.
The issue of single-parent households is also one that top policymakers and civil rights leaders are becoming more comfortable addressing.
In a speech to formally kick off his presidential campaign yesterday, Vice President Gore said, "The crisis in the American family today knows no boundary of class or race."
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said his group is aggressive about "promoting the value of values," noting that the group's branches across the country sponsor parenting, mentoring and father-and-son programs. Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) is working to build bipartisan support for a bill to be introduced in coming weeks that would address many of the issues raised in the Morehouse report. The legislation would fund grass-roots fatherhood programs, pay for a public relations campaign to promote the virtues of fatherhood and support job training for poor, unskilled fathers.
Those efforts are being buttressed by new research indicating that poor, single fathers often are more intimately involved in the lives of their children than is commonly assumed.
Preliminary findings from a study being done by Princeton University's Center for Research on Child Well-Being, found that four of five single fathers are "romantically involved" with their partners at the time of childbirth. Half of the couples actually live together, and 85 percent of the men provide financial support during pregnancy and say they plan to continue supporting their children. Moreover, the study is finding that most single parents are at least contemplating marriage.
"The problem is when you look at many of these guys five, six years down the road, they aren't there, they aren't involved, they aren't married," said Horn.
One reason is that often they cannot afford families. And while states have stepped up measures to make deadbeat fathers pay child support, there is no clear strategy for dealing with what the Morehouse report calls "dead-broke" fathers, who simply can not afford to pay.
Efforts to improve what the statement's authors call the "marriageability" of poor, single men are likely to prove difficult. Last year, a study found that the nation's most ambitious effort to help the fathers of children on welfare, called Parents Fair Share, failed to increase the men's employment or earnings and, as a result, had only modest success at getting them to make child support payments.