8:34am

Thu June 16, 2011
Opinion

The Root: Obama Helps Dads Do It Better

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.

It sometimes rubs people the wrong way. But President Obama has a tendency to talk about parental responsibility, especially as it pertains to absentee dads, when addressing African-American audiences.

"Michelle and I happen to be black parents, so I may add a little 'umph' to it when I'm talking to black parents," he joked to the National Urban League last summer by way of explanation.

Of course, fatherlessness is hardly an issue specific to black families. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 24 million children in America – one out of three – live in biological father-absent homes. However, the figure rises to nearly two in three among African-American children in particular, and, according to the National Fatherhood Initiative, young people without dads around are more likely to drop out of school, use drugs, engage in criminal behavior, and become young parents themselves.

With Father's Day approaching, this week we can probably expect more "handle your responsibility" messaging from the president. But he's also rolling out new initiatives to help dads maneuver around some of the obstacles to fatherhood, from economic hardship to uncertainty after leaving the criminal justice system:

* The Obama administration's Year of Strong Fathers, Strong Families campaign is a national effort that encourages dads to connect with their kids by cutting some of the costs of quality-time outings. It's a simple concept in which partners — including the Bowling Proprietors of America, zoos and aquariums, the WNBA, and companies like Groupon and Living Social – sponsor free or deeply discounted services for fathers and their children throughout the year.

* The Department of Health and Human Services will announce additional funding for local fatherhood programs. Originally created under the George W. Bush administration, HHS already provides "Promoting Responsible Fatherhood" grants for community-based organizations that focus on workforce development, healthy relationship skills, parenting classes, financial/child support management and other family-affirming services to low-income and ex-offender fathers. The agency is increasing its support for the next round of grants, from $50 million a year over five years, to $75 million.

* The Department of Justice has continued its investments in Fathering Reentry Courts in Washington, D.C. and St. Louis – pilot programs that Attorney General Eric Holder hopes to replicate across the country. Recognizing the hurdles to employment and education that trip up ex-offenders (about 55 percent of whom have minor children), the programs reach fathers just as they're leaving the criminal justice system and pairs them with services for entering the workforce, reconnecting with their families, and helping them sort out child support payments. The agency is also weaving fatherhood components into all of its broader re-entry programs, alongside their usual emphases on transitional jobs.

The efforts all grew out of recommendations from President Obama's Task Force for Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families, assembled in 2009 to advise the administration on ways that the government can help strengthen fatherhood. Roland Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, a Maryland-based nonprofit, served on the task force.

"We recommended that the president challenge government agencies — from the Department of Defense, Justice, Labor, Housing, Education and so on — to look at the portfolio of services that they provide to communities, and assess different policies that they could set up to help fathers be more involved in their children's lives," Warren told The Root. "It's a big issue in which the federal government can play a role, and certainly the agencies can help lead the way on a lot of this."

I can see where people might disagree with this perspective. It's an understandable point that the government does not have an unquestionable role in helping men do what they're supposed to do, and that personal responsibility should correctly be the focus when it comes to being an involved father. But tackling the sometimes complicated problem of absent fathers doesn't have to be an "either-or" proposition either. A two-pronged approach--addressing factors of unemployment, poverty and incarceration, in addition to stepping up to one's parental duty — sounds worth trying.

Do you think it could make a difference?

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