American fathers deserve extra help – New York Each day Information
Last month, a colleague of mine and I were leading a training session for social service practitioners and administrators who work with families. At the start of the training, we asked the attendees to name the TV shows that portrayed the value of fathers within the family. Immediately people started responding with “Leave it to Beaver,” “The Cosby Show,” “Family Matters,” “Full House,” “Good Times” and “Sanford and Son.”
What struck me about this exercise was how many people struggled to identify a contemporary television show that featured a positive and capable father. Think about it: In “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and dozens of other shows, the dad is the butt of jokes.
To the extent that life imitates art, this led me to think more about the perception of fathers in our society. And what better litmus test to assess the value of fathers than by reflecting on Father’s Day?
Even though we should use this day to celebrate men’s sacrifices and contributions on behalf of their family, many will see it as an opportunity to spew venom and vitriol. Some will take to social media to share their disappointment or frustration with their dad. Others will publicly demean dad by thanking their mother for playing both roles in their father’s absence. Even worse, cities and municipalities all over the country will purchase ad space to display lists of their so-called Top 10 Deadbeats featuring non-custodial fathers with the largest child support arrearages.
What’s most unfortunate about all this is that we live in a time where we have simultaneously raised the bar for what it takes to be perceived as a good father while also reducing the supports for men to fulfill this expectation. We have outsourced manufacturing and other “low-skilled” work, making it difficult for men without a lot of formal education to earn a wage sufficient to provide for a family. Outside of the federal Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood funding and a few select state-sponsored initiatives, there are very few social services and safety net programs to assist fathers.
Meanwhile, we have criminalized poverty to the point where we punish men who have difficulty making child support payments by incarcerating them, making it impossible to earn a living to support their children. And this does not begin to address the ways that Black and Latino fathers in particular continue to be marginalized by the combination of structural racism that threatens them personally and the benign neglect that decimates their communities.
However, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic that all is not lost. In fact, there are even a few recent examples of policies that have the potential to positively impact fathers which may be replicated in other places. One is the increasingly popular Family Court law that includes 50-50 parenting time requirements when parents divorce. In these cases, the law goes beyond traditional joint legal custody which gives both parents decision-making authority. Rather, these laws guarantee that children have access to both of their mother and father based on a schedule agreed upon by both parents, with the possibility of exceptions being made where there is evidence of abuse or when the parents live so far apart that such an arrangement is not feasible.
Another recent policy innovation is the advent of the “self-support reserve.” With it, states have developed guidelines that consider the basic needs of a low-income parent with limited means when calculating the amount of their child-support obligation. This provision is an attempt to recognize that a low-income parent is able to meet their own subsistence needs while still paying child support. The acknowledgment that low-income parents should be able to support themselves also reduces the incentive for them to avoid paying child support altogether by seeking “under-the-table” employment that has cash payments.
So, if you are still searching for the perfect Father’s Day gift, rather than yet another necktie or package of socks, I would like to recommend giving dads some empathy. Empathy in the form of support for policy proposals aimed at helping fathers develop the capacity to be active participants in their children’s lives. In doing so, not only will we be able to help fathers act on their intentions to be positive influences on their children, but we will also work to dismantle the rigidly gendered division of caregiving labor which disproportionately burdens mothers. Given that no one wins when the family feuds, empathy for fathers can be seen as an opportunity to create a win-win sparked by encouraging a culture of cooperation as opposed to competition.
Perry is professor at the University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work and Family Science and co-editor of “Fatherhood in America: Social Work Perspectives in a Changing Society” and author of “Black Love Matters: Authentic Men’s Voices on Marriage and Romantic Relationships .”