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Movement Grows to Bring Fathers Into Family

One child out of every 4 in America lives in a home without a father

By Ann Scott TysonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 24, 1996


At a fathers' support group in Minneapolis, a divorced, middle-aged man wonders in low tones what to say when his five-year-old son asks, "Why can't I be with you more, Dad?"

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In a rural town in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, a circle of Hispanic migrant workers listen as a parenting class instructor encourages them to overcome "machismo" and tell their children, "I love you."

At a Vermont hospital, a nurse coaxes the unwed father of a newborn to sign a form along with the baby's mother establishing their parentage and willingness to work out a way to care for the child.

These are the workaday faces of the 1990s fatherhood movement, a disparate and emerging social campaign aimed at reversing the trend of millions of American children growing up without involved fathers - or without fathers at all.

Since 1960, the percentage of US children under age 18 who live with their mother only has tripled from 8 percent to 24 percent, according to government figures. The US has surpassed the rest of the developed world in its percentage of single-parent families.

Activists in the fatherhood movement - ranging from fathers' rights proponents to conservative Christians to Vice President Al Gore - point to widespread "fatherlessness" as a leading cause of some of the most vexing problems in American society: juvenile crime, low grades in school, poverty, and welfare dependency.

"The spread of fatherlessness in our generation is a profound social crisis and a legitimate cause for alarm," according to a draft "Call for Action" issued by two-dozen leaders of the fatherhood movement at conference here last week.

"A society in which large and growing numbers of adult males cease to nurture their offspring is a failing society," concluded the conference, cosponsored by the Minneapolis-based Center of the American Experiment, the National Fatherhood Initiative, and the Institute for American Values.

Cash incentives and access

Recent legislative proposals on divorce, child support, and welfare have signaled a renewed interest in fatherhood. The new welfare bill signed by President Clinton in August places a priority on family preservation. It also offers monetary incentives to establish the parentage of children born out of wedlock and improve fathers' access to visit their children.

Fatherhood initiatives designed to strengthen father-child bonds are springing up around the country although evidence of their success remains largely anecdotal.

Still, policymakers, academics, and religious activists at the conference agreed that ending what they called "the curse of fatherlessness" remains a far-off goal. "Even as we rediscover fatherhood as a cultural ideal, flesh-and-blood fathers are becoming each year a scarcer commodity," says Maggie Gallagher, a scholar at the Institute for American Values in New York.

Several experts describe the disengagement of fathers as a stark, biological imperative linked to the collapse of marriage in America.