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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
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.

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.

"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.

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.

"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

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