Both the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune report that Mr. Obama has followed Bill Cosby's lead in calling on black fathers to be more responsible. Both papers pointed out that Mr. Cosby has been criticized by many black leaders for saying essentially the same thing that Mr. Obama said. The Tribune reported:
Obama directly addressed one of the most delicate topics confronting black leaders: whether absent fathers bore responsibility for some of the intractable problems afflicting black Americans. Obama noted that "more than half of all black children live in single-parent households," a number that he said had doubled since his own childhood. [emphasis added]
Too many fathers are "missing from too many lives and too many homes," Obama said to a chorus of approving murmurs from the audience. "They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it."
There's no mystery why this is one of the "most delicate" topics confronting black leaders. Both the Times and the Herald explained how Mr. Cosby had gone well beyond what Mr. Obama said:
Obama's themes have been also been sounded by the comedian Bill Cosby, who has stirred debate among black Americans by bluntly speaking about an epidemic of fatherlessness in black families while suggesting that some blacks use racism as a crutch to explain a lack of economic progress.
Fatherlessness is part of a general breakdown in family structure which the Michigan Family Forum claims costs American taxpayers $112 billion per year.
Scragged has pointed out how Mr. Obama puts existing black leadership in a quandary. Most black leaders derive their power from convincing black people that racism makes it impossible for blacks to get ahead and that the only way a black person can make it is for whites to grant special favors. The only way to get favors, they say, is through political action and, in return for votes, black leaders will kindly take the actions which are needed to get favors such as affirmative action and welfare.
In pointing out that black fatherlessness had doubled since his own childhood, a period during which racism declined and black opportunity improved, Mr. Obama has exposed the existing black leadership as a bunch of liars. They don't like him doing that any more than they liked Mr. Cosby blaming their policies for black problems, but now that Mr. Obama might become President of the United States, they don't want to give him too hard a time.
So far, so good. It's gratifying to see Mr. Obama discussing a problem serious enough to get an article "The Tragedy of America's Disappearing Fathers" on p. A11 of the of the June 14-15 issue of the Wall Street Journal. After pointing out that 71% of black children are born out of wedlock, the WSJ said:
They [fatherless young people] feel like they've been thrown away, Mr. Meyers [a 70-year-old black author of books for teenagers who often visits incarcerated teens] says, because "they don't have a father to push them, discipline them, and they give up trying to succeed ... they don't see themselves as wanted." ...
When these children [black children who have never had significant contact with fathers or with any other male authority figure] see Barack Obama, Colin Powell, or Condolezza Rice, they tell Walter Dean Meyers that these black people must be "special, they are not like me, they don't have the background that I have."
These children's statements show the silliness of the liberals saying that affirmative action is needed because black children must see successful blacks as "role models" in order to be able to achieve. What these black children are saying is that black role models do them no good unless they have had a father's support and encouragement.
Fatherlessness is such a serious problem that it cancels out successful black role models; having a father is such a strong uplifting force that it eliminates any need for black role models, a male role model suffices. Fatherlessness is well worthy of Mr. Obama's full attention.
It's impossible to fix a problem when you have the wrong ideas about what causes it, however. Mr. Obama has correctly noted that absentee fatherhood causes problems in black families just as it causes problems in white families. By focusing on a real, albeit self-inflicted, cause of black problems, Mr. Obama has done us all a favor.
But then he took it all away by the solution he advocates:
On Friday, Obama announced that he would co-sponsor a bill with Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, that his campaign said would address the "national epidemic of absentee fathers." If passed, the legislation would increase enforcement of child support payments and strengthen domestic violence prevention services. [emphasis added]
He wants to address the issue of fatherless families by sponsoring a bill to "increase enforcement of child support payments"? Sponsoring this law may make him feel good by convincing himself that he's done something about the problem, but does he seriously think that increased enforcement of child support will reduce absentee fathers?
There are two reasons Mr. Obama's proposed law won't help:
I have a friend who's had children by four different women. At the end of each month, his pay check comes to $60 after all the normal taxes and child support deductions are taken out. He's married to and living with the mother of his youngest child; that child doesn't get any child support because he has a live-in father.
The fact that the other three mothers get money from him doesn't give their children any fatherly influence because he barely has time to help raise the son he lives with. Increased child support enforcement may give mothers some money, but it won't give their children any more attention from their fathers. What if the mothers have decided they don't like the father any more and don't want him around? Having a man around cuts welfare payments; we taxpayers pay extra for fatherless children!
Another driving force behind black fatherlessness is that so many black men are in jail, on parole, or unemployed. My friend is an unusually responsible absentee father. The only reason he's able to pay child support at all is that he's willing to work at a difficult job where his income is taxed at nearly 100% by the time everything is taken out.
When a black father can't find a job and lives by hustling, what good is increased enforcement going to do? How does enforcement help fatherlessness when a black mother gets her welfare payment cut if she has a father living with her? Why doesn't Mr. Obama address the welfare rules which pay fathers to stay away and the child-support laws which make it pointless for fathers to work?
Mr. Obama is barking up the wrong tree in expecting that getting tough on biological fathers to have any effect on absentee fatherhood. Absent fathers are the immediate problem, yes, but they aren't the root cause. No male can become a father on his own.
The core problem is girls who want, or who are at least are willing, to be mothers without being wives. In an article "Pregnancy Boom at Gloucester High", Time magazine reports:
As summer vacation begins, 17 girls at Gloucester High School are expecting babies - more than four times the number of pregnancies the 1,200-student school had last year. ... All it took was a few simple questions before nearly half the expecting students, none older than 16, confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together. Then the story got worse. "We found out one of the fathers is a 24-year-old homeless guy," the principal says, shaking his head. [emphasis added]
Even if they prove he's the father, how much money or fatherhood can Mr. Obama get out of a "24-year old homeless guy?" I've spoken with a number of thirty-somethings who tell me that girls who became pregnant were shunned when they were in high school. A boy who got a girl pregnant and wouldn't stand by her came in for considerable criticism. Attitudes have changed since then, however. Time reports:
The high school has done perhaps too good a job of embracing young mothers. Sex-ed classes end freshman year at Gloucester, where teen parents are encouraged to take their children to a free on-site day-care center. Strollers mingle seamlessly in school hallways among cheerleaders and junior ROTC. "We're proud to help the mothers stay in school," says Sue Todd, CEO of Pathways for Children, which runs the day-care center.
Getting pregnant without being married has not only lost any sense of shame, it's become a career choice. These mothers-to-be are "none older than 16," which is young to be making such important decisions, but they probably don't see a better future than what welfare offers.
Says rising junior Kacia Lowe, who is a classmate of the pactmakers': "No one's offered them a better option."
These girls deliberately set out to become pregnant; no amount of contraceptive giveaways will keep girls from getting pregnant if that's what they decide to do. These girls know quite well that welfare pays much more faithfully than a lightly-educated young husband who's battling an uncertain economy. They know that pregnancy qualifies them for welfare whereas getting married may not qualify them for a steady income. How do we persuade these girls that it's not in their long-term interests to get pregnant while in high school?
We see the glimmerings of a solution in Mr. Clinton's welfare reforms. When Mr. Clinton backed legislation which made it harder to collect welfare payments, liberals screamed that welfare recipients would starve, but it didn't work out that way. Even the liberal-minded Boston Globe has pointed out that making it harder to collect welfare has reduced poverty.
... it is clear that welfare reform has been a shining success. The Republican Congress that passed it and the Democratic president who signed it turned out to be truer champions of the poor than those who inveighed against it so hysterically. [emphasis added]
When a welfare mother was forced to go to work, it wasn't long before she earned more money than welfare paid. Her children were lifted out of poverty by welfare reform, not by welfare.
This shows that the solution to black or white fatherlessness lies with potential mothers, not with the government or the unemployed fathers. Scragged has pointed out that in some circles, having a baby while on welfare is considered to be a badge of honor, not a shameful exploitation of the taxpayers. Black girls (and no few white girls) are willing to have sex with utterly irresponsible men because they know that the welfare system will pick up the bills.
Indeed, the incidence of unwed fatherhood has fallen as welfare reform has taken hold. When women know that it won't be as easy to collect welfare, they aren't as willing to let men knock them up.
We agree completely with Mr. Obama that fatherlessness is a serious problem in both the black and white communities. If Mr. Obama is serious about reducing black fatherlessness, which we agree is the key to improving educational and economic prospects among blacks, he's got to get at the root of the problem and reduce welfare payments to women who have babies out of wedlock. Mr. Clinton's welfare reforms have shown that if Mr. Obama takes the profit out of pregnancy, women will be more careful.
Increased enforcement of child support as Mr. Obama is proposing may sound good but it won't help. He should build on Mr. Clinton's earlier success, make it harder to collect welfare, and reduce black poverty even further than Mr. Clinton did.