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Fatherhood, not marriage, is focus of Obama family policies

'Good fatherhood' initiatives are at the center of President Obama's family and welfare policies. It is a different approach than the one taken by the Bush administration, which focused more on promoting marriage.

By Julia MarshContributor / August 10, 2010

Russell White (second from l.) and others at the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore July 14. The program aims to help men become better fathers and succeed in the workplace. Marriage-education advocates worry that such programs cut into their funding.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Baltimore

On a recent Wednesday night, 20 men, most middle-aged and all African-American, sat facing a whiteboard with the words "honeymoon," "guilt," and "cheating" written on it.

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"Why do you treat your mom different from your girlfriend?" a female instructor asked.

"It's respect," answered Russell White, who works two low-wage jobs to meet $150 a week in child-support payments.

"They should get the same amount of respect, shouldn't they?" the instructor challenged.

"They should," Mr. White nodded.

IN PICTURES: Scenes of fatherhood

This is a fatherhood class at the Center for Urban Families, a nonprofit in Baltimore. The center works with what its founder, Joseph Jones Jr., calls not deadbeat but "dead broke" dads, connecting them with services that help them become better fathers.

It has served 14,000 clients over 10 years, and it's now considered a national model for so-called "responsible fatherhood" programs – an area that the Obama administration has emphasized.

Indeed, the Obama administration's approach to welfare policy and family funds gives much attention to fatherhood-oriented programs like this one. But it hasn't been this way for long: The fatherhood emphasis may represent a shift from the Bush administration, which favored marriage programs. Supporters of marriage education are worried.

"The marriage-education movement is not against fatherhood programs, but we are against fatherhood programs being launched at the expense of marriage and relationship programs," says Chris Gersten, a former Bush administration official.

The apparent shift from a marriage to a fatherhood emphasis can be seen in the funding philosophies of the two administrations.

The Bush administration's family funding included dedicated line items in the budget – $100 million a year for marriage and $50 million annually for fatherhood. President Obama's new fund, which has yet to be approved by Congress, takes a different tack: It splits $500 million into two equal pieces that states deliver to local organizations. One piece is for "comprehensive responsible fatherhood programs – including those with a marriage component," and the other is to improve the lives of children by helping their parents get jobs.

To be sure, the Obama administration believes that marriage is important, says Jesse Moore, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, the agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that will administer the new fund. But at the same time, the fund reflects the fact that "children live in a wide range of family structures and there are many different ways that fathers can engage in the lives of their children," he says.

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