Crime. Juvenile delinquency. Teen pregnancy. Welfare. The economy. Homelessness. Substance abuse. Divorce. Moral degeneracy. Domestic violence. In David Blankenhorn's view, virtually every social ill in this country can be attributed to the single cause of fatherlessness.
No social pattern is more divisive, more dangerous or more steadfastly denied, he has asserted for close to a decade.
"The trend of fatherlessness is so big now, the dimensions of the crisis have grown so large," said Blankenhorn, founder and president of the Institute for American Values here. "And the consequences for society have grown so apparent that it is very hard to pretend that there is not an elephant in the room.
"But there is an elephant in the room. A huge, big, 10-ton elephant. He is breaking the furniture. He is causing us to be afraid. And we can't ignore him anymore."
For the first time, Blankenhorn said--citing data from his just-published book, "Fatherless America" (Basic Books)--more than half of U.S. children will spend "a significant" part of childhood without a father in the home. Births to unwed mothers are skyrocketing. Thirty percent of all children are born to unmarried women, he reports, and for African American children, the figure is 68%.
But Blankenhorn thinks the problem is even broader. "The crisis we have today is not simply an absence of fathers, but an absence of ideals and ideas for fathers," he said.
This void in values, along with the rise in single parenthood and the "volitional" absence of too many fathers, is culturally unprecedented, said Blankenhorn, his voice bleak. "No society has ever experienced what we are experiencing. We are in uncharted waters."
With his book, his think tank and his powerful arsenal of facts about fatherhood, Blankenhorn has taken the helm as de facto navigator. Far from promising a trouble-free voyage, he has begun by making giant waves. "Fatherless America" has instantly become a catch phrase.
Blankenhorn, board chairman of the National Fatherhood Initiative, is using that group's nationwide tour as a vehicle to promote the ideas in his book. His name seems to be popping up everywhere, most recently on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, where on Feb. 28 he summarized much of his thesis by writing: "Today, fatherlessness is viewed as normal--regrettable, perhaps, but acceptable."
The splash has puzzled some in the field. "Attributing all these pathologies to the fact that fathers aren't there--well, it doesn't seem that simple to me," said University of Oklahoma history professor Robert Griswold, author of "Fatherhood in America: A History" (Basic Books, 1993).
"If the argument is, is a child better off with two parents? I would have to say yes," Griswold said. "But lots of these families are in deep trouble before the father leaves."
James A. Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project at New York's Families and Work Institute, characterized "Fatherless America" as "an easily graspable and emotionally powerful" image.
"It's a great book title," Levine said, "but it's a sloppy analysis of what's really going on in America, an analysis that actually limits Blankenhorn's ability to make useful recommendations for the key issue: Given that fathers are important, how can we go about connecting them to their children, supporting their many roles in the family?"
Along with the mandatory component, perhaps, of carping, Blankenhorn's meteoric rise on the fatherhood front has earned him a small measure of mythology. One story traveling in some social-science circles, for example, is that Blankenhorn took on fatherhood as a way to settle old family scores.
In fact, he said with a patient smile, little could be further from the truth. His parents are still married, to each other, and reside in his hometown of Jackson, Miss., where Blankenhorn and his own 5-year-old son, Raymond, recently spent a long, lazy weekend fishing and eating good Southern food. On his wall, Blankenhorn keeps a framed note from his father, who greeted the news that his oldest son had been accepted to Harvard by telling him, "Well, son, I'm sure we can make the necessary sacrifices to send you to that fine Yankee institution. But when you get out, I want no preachin', no teachin' and no social work."
Naturally, Blankenhorn proceeded to do all three. As a community organizer and VISTA volunteer in low-income areas around Boston, Blankenhorn led angry demonstrations. "But the philosophical goal was lacking," he remembered.
Blankenhorn, 40, grew up with the civil rights movement all around him. He was a high school freshman when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Jackson schools closed until they could desegregate. Blankenhorn endeavored to heal racial rifts by launching something called the Mississippi Community Service Corps, providing tutorials and "black-white dialogue."
Now preachin' and teachin' and social workin' as a community organizer, Blankenhorn harked back to the "moral drama" of civil rights. "I kept thinking, is it really the main problem that the utility bills are too high? Is the main thing that they aren't coming out and picking up the garbage?
"I came to believe that it was not. These were not the most important issues," he said. "The most important issues had to do with raising children, with finding a way for men and women to live together and raise their children."
Half-facetiously, Blankenhorn recalled how at 29, he decided that "what the world needed was another think tank"--a research group devoted exclusively to family issues. Hovering around "the left of the political structure" in that heyday of the Reagan Revolution, Blankenhorn said he was troubled by the rise of "the very conservative think tanks, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute. To me, they were the bad guys."
Blankenhorn inaugurated his venture three years later, working from a single desk in the greeting card company that his wife, Raina Sacks Blankenhorn, was in the process of selling to Dutch entrepreneurs. The gap between "the pretension of the name" and the actual operation was laughable, Blankenhorn said. There he was, amid the cacophony of trans-Atlantic creative conferences in Dutch and English, trying to sound authoritative as he answered his own telephone, "Institute for American Values." He barely had enough money to pay his postage. To be safe, he didn't give up his taxicab license.
After all, the debate he was engaging in was "not even on the radar screen" at that time. Blanketing news organizations with essays and Op-Ed pieces about fatherhood since 1987--distant history in the scope of the still-emerging focus on fathers--Blankenhorn "really was out there in the wilderness," agreed San Diego writer Richard Louv, whose book FatherLove (Pocket Books) came out in 1993. "He embraced this issue very early on."
But Blankenhorn said that in taking on the plight of mothers, fathers and children in contemporary America, he carefully sidestepped at least one buzz term. "I don't like the phrase 'family values,' " he said. "I never use it. It has political baggage that I don't like, and it never has been used in a precise way. Nobody knows if you mean abortion or Woody Allen."
He has also strived, right from the beginning, to avoid "sanctimonious finger-pointing" in any political direction. "I don't like hearing people say, 'We're in a pickle, and it's all because of this group or that group,' " Blankenhorn said. "You know, 'The bad liberals ruined things,' or, 'The hardhearted conservatives did it.' Or welfare mothers, or immigrants--I don't like any of it. It seems to me that in our current discourse, this is frequently done in a harsh way that suggests meanness and lack of compassion."
Yet Blankenhorn himself has drawn criticism along much the same lines. While voicing respect for his confrere on the fatherhood front, Louv decries Blankenhorn's veneration of what he calls the "Good Family Man"--the "traditionally masculine" father--at the expense of what Blankenhorn terms the "superfluous" or "new" father. To the dismay of Louv and others, Blankenhorn portrays this "unnecessary" father figure as weak, genderless and lacking in any central social role.
"Within the home," Blankenhorn wrote in a major policy paper, "fatherhood in our generation has completed its 200-year march from the center to the periphery."
Louv, for one, deems this "attack on the new father" as "absolutely gratuitous, because we need all the fathers we can get." Polarizing the discussion of fatherhood by posing a sole paradigm--that is, the "Good Family Man"--leads nowhere, Louv said.
"It's offensive to a lot of fathers to set up a single standard," he said. "There are a lot of fathers out there who are doing their damnedest. And they don't all happen to fit David Blankenhorn's tidy model. What we don't need right now is to pit one type of father against another."
But William Galston, a top adviser to President Clinton on domestic policy, lauds Blankenhorn's boldness in "forcing the debate" on fatherhood. "I honor him for his courage, even when I don't agree with him," Galston said. "I agree strongly that fatherlessness is a very important and negative experience for most of the children who experience it. Where I part company with him to some extent is in his discussion of gender scripts," where Blankenhorn dwells on "deep differences between men and women."
Blankenhorn has also drawn fire in some feminist circles for his universal condemnation of voluntary single motherhood.
"I think it's wrong, because every child deserves a father," he said. But does every woman deserve a baby? "No," Blankenhorn said. "Nor does every man."
Blankenhorn's Institute for American Values has grown to encompass prominent scholars from assorted political stripes. Colleague Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, for one, ignited a small brush fire of her own last year with an article in the Atlantic Monthly titled "Dan Quayle Was Right," defending the former vice president's views on single motherhood.
The organization now occupies a real office above a deli, just around the corner from Lincoln Center. It's also just a 10-block walk from Blankenhorn's apartment, allowing him to have lunch with his son and screenwriter wife--or to dash out to accompany Raymond to kindergarten or swimming lessons. He is careful, however, to separate his personal and professional lives. He is not, he insists, merely the model for his views on fatherhood.
Blankenhorn, lean and lanky and defiantly casual in baggy trousers and a shapeless cranberry sweater, has become a major player in the national discussion about families and fathers. His institute has held conferences of its own on these subjects, and Blankenhorn was a vocal participant in a fatherhood summit last summer sponsored by Vice President Al Gore.
But for all the talk, Blankenhorn admits a prescription is more difficult. The "elephant" of fatherlessness has grown fat and forceful. Recognizing the issue is at least part of the solution, Blankenhorn said, but even that is not easy.
"It's a real challenge to change without self-hatred, without self-renunciation--to just say, with the best of intentions, 'We made some mistakes,' " he said. For the current crop of policy-makers, largely born in the euphoria of freedom that followed World War II, "It's just very hard for this generation to say to itself, 'Marriage got weaker on our clock. Children did worse on our clock.' We ought to, with dignity and honesty, try to understand how we could do better."
This is important especially for men, he continued, "because divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing weakened motherhood--but typically, destroyed fatherhood. When men no longer live with their families, they simply are no longer fathers. Or, they are fathers in a very weakened way."
Maybe the tide of fatherlessness can be reversed, maybe it can't, "I don't know," Blankenhorn said. "And I would go further, and say that no one knows. But one thing we do know is it won't be reversed if all we do is sit around and wonder if--not how--it can be reversed. I am looking for more ideas on how to change all this. And I am looking for a father for every child."
* Next week: How important are dads?