Who could disagree that in raising children fathers count? Certainly not the National Organization for Women. We've been urging for more than thirty years that fathers take an equal share of responsibility in caring for their children. But you can't judge the so-called Fathers Count bill by its cover.
The Fathers Count bill passed by the House of Representatives and the Responsible Fatherhood bill pending in the Senate would promote marriage as a one-size-fits-all solution to poverty and strengthen a fathers' rights movement whose goals include lowering or completely avoiding child support payments.
The bill proposes to funnel more than $155 million to nonprofit groups for support services to non-custodial fathers—even though Congress has cut the already-inadequate funds for similar services to custodial parents, mostly mothers. Congress apparently hopes that some of the money it gives to dads will trickle down to needy kids.
The Senate must reject the twisted House logic that the best way to take care of poor children is to fund programs for fathers who do not have day-to-day responsibility for raising their kids and that the cure for poverty is marriage irrespective of family circumstances.
Despite this record, Congress apparently thinks the best way out of poverty for poor women is a husband, any husband: the Fathers Count bill would only fund programs that "promote marriage," without any exceptions for domestic violence. But pressuring a poor mother to marry—without regard to a man's character or violent behavior—could do more harm than good. Besides, if marriage really were a cure for poverty, it would not take an act of Congress to promote it.
Under the Fathers Count Act, funds would likely be awarded to groups that are part of the self-described fathers' rights movement. This deceptively named movement is no friend to children—or women, and it does not offer effective remedies for poverty. Who are these advocates for fathers' rights, and what is their political agenda?
The National Fatherhood Initiative, which will likely receive $5 million from Congress for a national media campaign, is headed by Wade Horn, a fellow of the ultra-conservative Hudson Institute. Horn reportedly advocates "explicit, preferential treatment for marriage in the distribution of discretionary funds such as public housing and Head Start slots." So, in Horn's ideal world, the government would punish poor kids who do not live with married parents, regardless of the reason.
Then there is the Fathers' Rights Coalition of Chico, Calif. Dads who want to lower or completely avoid child support payments can visit the group's web site for advice. One article on the site—entitled "Preemptive Strike"—brags about how a non-custodial father, who owned his own business and earned $400,000 in one year, used a loophole to reduce his child support payment from $250 to $150 per month. The Fathers' Rights Coalition could also be awarded money under the Fathers Count Act.
These are just two of the fathers' rights groups that apparently long for the days of "father knows best," when wives submitted graciously to their husbands. These groups and this bill seem to assert that fathers count more—more than mothers, more than children.
Fast forward to 1999: Now the House is pushing the so-called Fathers Count Act in an effort to address the issue of absentee fathers. Politicians have decided that poor fathers are unappreciated victims of poverty. So, while Congress cuts funds to help poor custodial parents (the majority of whom are women), they rush to allocate millions of dollars for programs for non-custodial parents (the majority of whom are men) on the premise that if only those poor absentee fathers had job training and pro-marriage counseling, they would be better dads and children would be lifted out of poverty. And the fathers don't even have to be poor. Only their children do. So middle class fathers whose kids are on welfare will be eligible for programs their kids' moms would probably love to have.
Congress needs to make an honest commitment to eradicating poverty. As the time limits for many on public assistance run out at the end of this year, the real Y2K crisis will be millions of poor children and their custodial parents left out in the cold to fend for themselves.
Ultimately, the Congressional fascination with fatherhood will do little to help impoverished children. Instead of looking back to the 1950s and longing for the days of the fictional Ozzie and Harriet, Congress would do well to look for answers that will work in the future.
See more facts on the Fathers Count Act.