Ma, ma, where’s my pa?

Today’s question: Was Sen. Barack Obama right to condemn absentee fathers? Kerry Howley and Kay Hymowitz debate the politics of children. Previously, they discussed juvenile obesity and the teen pregnancy pact. Later this week, they’ll discuss fertility rates and other topics.

Why should a dad bother?
Point: Kay Hymowitz


Barack Obama’s critique of black fatherlessness was unusual because it was not only politically smart -- it appealed to the working-class white “values” voters he needs to bring to his camp -- but it happened to be true. The percentage of black single mothers grew from 25% in 1965, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan first sounded the alarm in his infamous report, “The Negro Family ,” to an astonishing 70% by the early 1990s.

To appreciate the speech, remember how hard it has been to have a frank discussion of this issue. Moynihan was pummeled as a racist and sexist. As a result, for decades to come, dads went absent not only from their children’s homes but also from the policy discussion. This in turn reinforced the increasing cultural acceptance of single-mother families. As I mentioned in Monday’s post, experts and legislators talked about teen mothers -- and for that matter, welfare mothers -- as if the children arrived via stork. Black leaders such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson rued the absence of black men on prime-time television but went mum about their disappearance from their children’s lives.

That said, Obama punted on the tough question: Can fathers stay involved with their kids absent marriage? Or for those who are uncomfortable with the word, a long-term, stable, live-in, child-centered relationship with their children’s mother? It doesn’t look that way. Only about a third of nonresidential fathers see their children with any frequency. Low-income unmarried fathers, who are disproportionately but of course not only black, are even more absent. According to the Fragile Families study, about half of them have a child from a previous relationship and many will go on to have yet another child by another partner. You’d have to be Daniel Boone to negotiate such a thicket of children and ex’s. Columbia sociology professor Marcia J. Carlson finds that only between 10% and 18% of non-co-residential fathers remain heavily involved with their kids, and though those kids look better on social, emotional and cognitive outcomes than kids whose fathers are disengaged, they still don’t do as well as those with a live-in dad.

Most people object that the fathers in question will not make very good husbands. That’s probably true, but not an argument against trying to reintroduce marriage as a cultural norm for future generations. Marriage, like the firing squad, focuses the mind. If you’re a young woman who has grown up believing you should be married to your child’s father, you will be more careful about who that man will be. And if you’re a young man who knows you will have a vital role to play as a husband and father, you’ll have reason to stay in school and out of trouble.

Obama was right that black fathers are too often MIA. He was wrong to ignore how little reason they’ve had for stepping up.

Kay Hymowitz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal. Her most recent book is “Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post Marital Age.”

Who needs a firing squad when you’ve got prisons?
Point: Kerry Howley


Barack Obama’s speech was strategically smart and perfectly delivered -- no surprises there. It may not be the kind of thing we’re used to hearing from political figures, but the content of the speech was not particularly controversial. As you have long argued, children tend to do better when they’re raised by two biological parents, along a variety of dimensions and controlling for all sorts of factors. It was always a mistake to deny that fact in the service of some larger political crusade.

Still, I’m not sure where blindly repeating “two parents are ideal” gets us. I have yet to meet a single mother who doesn’t want help. The low-income single women in “Promises I Can Keep,” the study of poor mothers I referenced during our pregnancy pact discussion, hope upon hope for a worthy partner to come along. Most wealthy single women who seek sperm donors would like a lasting partnership, but they tend to fear that they will complete fertility before they meet that partner. We all know what the ideals are, but the world doesn’t always cooperate.

For low-income black women, the world really isn’t cooperating. We put an awful lot of nonviolent black men behind bars, which is not generally conducive to good fathering. With so many young men absent, the marriage markets are heavily skewed against women, and mothers who might otherwise demand that men stay home and change diapers find themselves in a miserable bargaining position. In his book “The Logic of Life,” Tim Harford describes one study indicating that “a one-percentage- point increase in the proportion of young black men in prison reduces the proportion of young black women who have ever been married by three percentage points.” Now consider: In New Mexico, 30% of black men between 30 and 35 are in prison. Telling women to want marriage more just doesn’t seem like an effective strategy here. Nor does it seem right to suggest that they ought not to have children at all; these women are simply responding rationally to the world as it is.

We can’t blame all deficient fathering on the drug war, of course, and I’m not against pushing long-term partnership as a cultural norm. It’s just hard for me to know what that means in practice, and how that will accommodate the many familial arrangements bound to pop up within an adaptive, pluralistic society. I’d rather see us push back against a state that regularly separates children from their nonviolent fathers. When Obama gives that speech, I’ll be impressed.

Kerry Howley is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

<< Previous day’s Dust-Up | Main Page | Next day’s Dust-Up >>
Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5