Illinois can’t be both pro-family and anti-father
June 7, 1993
The problems caused by the fatherless family was hardly new to Illinois in 1993, but the state’s policies were making a bad problem worse. Making it worse, but not causing it, as some believed; the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, the topic of this piece, is gone but the problem remains.
Roughly half the children born in Illinois these days are by unwed mothers; among teenage mothers the figure is eight of ten. Their fathers are usually known to the mothers, but they seldom exist officially. This is not a new phenomenon, although its scale is unprecedented. What reformers working in turn-of-the‑century immigrant communities called the "intermittent husband" is more familiar today as one of what Chicago-bred writer Rosemary Bray has called "shadow men"—men who walked out back doors as caseworkers came in through the front.
Fatherless families are inordinately prone to breakdown, indeed may be said to be broken when they are formed. Fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of school as kids who grow up with both parents, and they also suffer disproportionately from ill health and behavior disorders. (Boys growing up in households where no male is present to provide love and discipline are presumed inclined to perpetuate cycles of child-siring and abandonment.) Growing up fatherless may explain the epidemic of apparently random violence among young males; some 70 percent of the juveniles in long-term lockup have fathers who did not live with them.
It is recognized that fathers are good for kids, but kids may be even better for fathers. Anthropologists argue—usually well out of earshot of policymakers—that having a family is a civilizing influence on a male. Children provide his connection to community and future, which are an essential counterbalance to the ancient—and by now, socially inappropriate—impulses of the solitary and promiscuous hunter-warrior.
Perhaps most important in terms of public costs, children whose fathers are not present at home are five times as likely to be poor. According to data compiled by the University of Illinois at Chicago's Jane Addams School of Social Work, the average married couple with children in Illinois earns $53,000 and the average single woman with kids $17,000—this in a state where the cost of raising two kids is estimated to be more than $20,000 a year. The father's income is essential not only because raising kids costs money, but because the act of having children costs the typical mother 2.5 years worth of earnings in lost work time.
Recent estimates are that financially delinquent parents, 95 percent of them fathers, owe $800 million in unpaid child support in Illinois. The fervor of the campaign (late coming to Illinois) to catch "deadbeat dad" suggests that they will join child-abusers on the public's roster of villains. Unfortunately the system for collecting child support is set up to work well only with fathers who have regular jobs. (The flat dollar-amount payments required of the system forces well-intended fathers into delinquency while they are out of work or in job training.) Social workers and others who actually work with these fathers suggest that many if not most of them are not so much bad fathers as they are bad workers—a meaningless distinction, alas, in a culture that still believes that a man's main responsibility toward his family to pay for them.
In days past it was usually unemployment that drove the intermittent husband into self-imposed exile, but more recently the regulations of the state's social service bureaucracy have had the same effect. The Aid to Families with Dependent Children program historically forbade a non-working father from living productively with the mother of his children. The result was thousands of fathers who are at least officially absent from their children.
Finding fault is seldom productive as a social policy, however satisfying it may be politically, a fact that the existing child abuse system unhappily makes clear. In order not to support the wastrel father, AFDC virtually guaranteed that taxpayers would end up supporting his children.
Child-support programs assume poor parents ought to live one way and poor people actually live other ways, and the farther the distance between the two the better the chances are that such programs will fail. For example, many of the familiar social and economic forces that encourage traditional marriage—and marriage remains an economic, not a romantic phenomenon—do not operate so dependably in the exceptional environment of the very poor.
For example, if one-income families cause poverty, poverty also causes one-income families. Marriage doesn't always insure mothers-to-be a higher income for mothers, since many marriageable men have never worked or have at best marginal job prospects. Partly as a result, such men tend to be dependent and exploitative. Poor women thus conclude that husbands are more trouble than they are worth; considered in the context of Illinois's poorest communities, such a conclusion is rational if not always wise.
The evidence that married couples provide better homes for kids is indisputable. What is disputable is the conclusion from that evidence that it is the married state per se that turns otherwise incompetent parents into good ones. Saying "I do" is no magic spell. Nevertheless, welfare programs increasingly offer incentives to wed as a solution to the problem of the fatherless family. But compelling the uncommitted into marriage may, like so many other busybody policies of the welfare nannies, have perverse effects.
This is not to argue against the conventional family, only against bureaucratic versions of the shotgun weddings. Some Illinois agencies have taken a more promising tack by easing the official anathema which had banished the adult male. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) in 1990 offered parent education to male inmates at the Jacksonville Correctional Center. A Parent Involvement Demonstration Project funded by two state agencies and six major foundations seeks to provide young African-American fathers on welfare who do not have custody of their kids job training. The Illinois Department of Public Aid's new Fresh Start program enables two-parent families to stay together even if the male is unemployed while he looks for work; it also makes noncustodial fathers eligible for training and other help that might make him a viable father.
It would require a hopefulness verging on naiveté to think that these programs will work; trying to coerce a "normal" social response from young males living in an abnormal social system in which they have no real economic and social role would test even competent agencies. Such programs ought to be tried anyway. We don't yet what might work, while we do know what won't—that the state cannot be both pro-family and anti-father at the same time. ●