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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.

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Fatherhood has been a recurring theme of the Obama administration. Shortly after his inauguration, Mr. Obama established a Fatherhood and Healthy Families Taskforce. He called the high rate of absent fathers in African-American communities "a real crisis." In June, Obama launched a Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative.

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"Given the focus on fatherhood at the highest levels of the administration, it's clear that this is a priority," says Joshua DuBois, who oversees fatherhood initiatives as director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

When Congress passed welfare reform in 1996, a section of the law directed that funds go to the "formation and maintenance of two-parent families." This section opened the door to federal funding for programs that support and encourage marriage.

Since then, presidents have cited the same dire statistics surrounding single-parent households: One in 3 children in America lives in a fatherless household, and these children are likelier to be poor, abuse drugs, and become teen parents.

But presidents have used these statistics to support different approaches to family funds. Now, groups concerned about the Obama approach are pressing members of Congress to create a dedicated portion of funds that would go to marriage education.

The California Healthy Marriages Coalition is one group calling for this. The coalition provides marriage- and relationship-education funding to organizations throughout the state. It received almost $12 million over five years from the Bush administration's Healthy Marriage fund.

But the group would be fortunate to get $1 million from the new fund, says Dennis Stoica, the coalition's president. He argues that the language in the proposed budget, placing marriage as a "component" of comprehensive responsible-fatherhood programs, favors fatherhood. The multifaceted nature of the funds would crowd out marriage, he adds. "For us, it's this tremendous shift," Mr. Stoica says.

Mr. DuBois of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships refutes the idea that marriage education could become obsolete under Obama. "There is a renewed and invigorated emphasis on the responsible-fatherhood side and a continuation of interest in marriage," he says.

The fund's composition will remain unclear until the money is appropriated and distributed. Furthermore, both fatherhood and marriage-education programs are relatively new fields, and while some studies have found success, others are inconclusive.

Mr. Jones of the Center for Urban Families is also a member of a presidential advisory council. He sees fatherhood programs working in tandem with marriage promotion. "We want to help men be good fathers and partners so that, when they go into a new relationship, we have the potential to cut off that cycle of father absence," he says.

IN PICTURES: Scenes of fatherhood