Today's Summit on Fatherhood, which President Bush will address, brings into focus a vexing American social problem - how to get more young African-American fathers to act responsibly toward their children.
Many black men are exemplary fathers, of course. But too many, experts say, are not. In communities all around America, the number of efforts to improve the parenting of these young men has been on the rise the last few years, after having been nearly nonexistant for decades.
Small, largely unconnected programs seek to get young black males to understand why it's better to mature first and become a father second, rather than the other way around - and to show those men who already have children what it means to be an effective father, if they do not know.
But are these fledgling efforts making an impact? "The news so far doesn't seem to be very good," says Robert Lerman, director of the Urban Institute's Center on Labor and Social Policy in Washington. Despite little improvements here and there, large numbers of young African-American men, "are not really improving very much in school, or in work." The situation isn't worsening, he says - but it isn't getting appreciably better, either.
Many young black men have children by the time they're in their early 20s; 34 percent of those who do don't live with their children, according to an Urban Institute study, one of the relatively few firm statistics around. The figure, the latest available, is for 1997, and hasn't fundamentally changed over the past decade.
And, Mr. Lerman says, two-thirds of absent black fathers have no job, so they're not able to provide much money to their children's mother.
There's more. Many programs for young black fathers have neither enough volunteers to run them nor enough young fathers enrolled. Further, there's insufficient communication between programs, forcing community after community to reinvent the wheel. Finally, there's never enough money.
In its meeting in Washington today and tomorrow, the fourth National Summit on Fatherhood, sponsored by the National Fatherhood Initiative, will hear dour news like this as it focuses in part on programs that deal with minority fathers.
But the news isn't all gloom and doom. For one thing, many experts agree on what's needed to make young people good fathers: a solid role model. "In order to be an effective father," says Roland Warren, executive vice president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, "there has to be some role modeling on what it means to be [one]." Which means that adult men, preferably African-American, are needed to spend consistent time with young black men, many of whom were themselves brought up without a father in their own homes.
Another positive indication is that the number of babies born to unmarried African-American teenagers has declined, and, for those that are born, paternity is being established more often.
The most hopeful sign of all, to Lerman, is epitomized by meetings like today's summit. It's the fact that the issue of making good fathers of more young black men is "much more on the policy agenda now" than a few years ago, when the males were essentially ignored while social service organizations worked almost exclusively with unmarried mothers.
"We are making incremental progress," insists George Garrow Jr., executive director of the National Organization of Concerned Black Men, citing the number of promising programs for men springing up independently in many communities, with some persuading young black men to postpone fatherhood, or teaching them to be good parents if they already are fathers.
Local chapters of Mr. Garrow's organization, for instance, send volunteer African-American men into schools and community organizations to work with young black men, earn their confidence over the long haul, discuss issues on their minds, and bring a measured dose of exposure to the real world.
Different programs try to attract young fathers in different ways. In Camden, N.J., "Teens on Track" works with young black men by offering recreation and a men's health clinic.
In some parts of Pennsylvania, a National Fatherhood Initiative program takes advantage of black fathers' initial interest in their newborns by training these dads to monitor health issues. The approach is a vehicle to get fathers involved more broadly with their babies, says Mr. Warren, since their interest soon expands to other parenting concerns.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor