Is all that rhetoric we hear about fathers being vital to raising good, honest, hard-working children nonsense? Mychal Denzel Smith, an author and contributing writer at The Nation Magazine, thinks so.
Are missing fathers truly to blame for childhood poverty, juvenile delinquency and a host of other social ills? Smith thinks not. Writing in Sunday’s Washington Post, Smith said “responsible fatherhood only goes so far in a world plagued by institutionalized oppression.”
It’s not missing fathers to blame for childhood poverty, juvenile delinquency and a host of other social ills. It’s the system … the failing schools, the bad cops, the redlining.
He concedes he has a tough case to make, that “there are studies showing that children who grow up in two-parent households perform better in school, are less likely to commit crime and have higher future earning potential.
“What these studies often don’t take into account is the impact of depressed wages, chronic unemployment, discriminatory hiring practices, mass incarceration, housing segregation and inequality in educational opportunity, not just on black family structure but on the resources available to those families to produce results similar to their white counterparts.”
Actually, the studies do take these things into account. Those who grow up in two-parent households learn more, earn more, get in trouble with the law less and are more successful not only in their careers but in their own relationships. Being better educated means they are better paid, have more professional opportunities, have fewer encounters with law enforcement and less involvement with public housing.
Smith said black families have been torn apart since the days of slavery, and found other viable family structures. But again, he offers his own counter-argument.
“When biological parents haven’t been available, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, and a host of friends and ‘play cousins’ have stepped in to do the work of raising children,” he wrote. “Today, as prison removes more and more black men from their homes, we do the same.”
First, as late as the early 1970s, most black children were born to married mothers. Now, nearly 80 percent are not, and it’s not unreasonable to think that the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) was right that fewer black men would find themselves in prison if more fathers were present in their children’s lives.
Smith says even if fathers are in homes, “the persistently high unemployment rate among black males would do little to close the increasing racial wealth gap, which is now so wide, it would take 228 years for black households to catch up.”
But why is that unemployment rate so high? Lack of education and criminal records to a large extent—the things Smith acknowledges plagues kids of all ages from broken homes.
“The damage isn’t done by the absence of a father but from the feeling of abandonment,” Smith wrote. “If black children were raised in an environment that focused not on bemoaning their lack of fathers but on filling their lives with the nurturing love we all need to thrive, what difference would an absent father make?”
The absence of the father causes the feeling of abandonment. And the nurturing love we all need to thrive is supposed to come from the father.
Smith sounds like a guy who is tired of hearing the same old excuse, but it’s only the same excuse because it remains correct. He’s right that kids should not be stigmatized for their fatherlessness, and that extended family and close friends have stepped up heroically to give many a chance they otherwise wouldn’t have had.
He chided President Obama for using fatherlessness as an “excuse” for poverty and not facing up to government’s role in making it harder for African-Americans to reach the middle class.
But this is not even mainly a race problem. Robert Rector at the Heritage Foundation has said that almost all the socioeconomic differences between the rich and poor can be explained not by race, but by the presence of a father, married to the mother, in the home.
Just short of 24 percent of America’s kids grow up in households headed by a single parent. The poverty rate for all Americans is about 15 percent; for them, it is more than 47 percent. And it’s not just income, it’s all those other indicators as well.
Smith insists his piece was not “an argument in favor of deadbeat fathers but a call to detach ourselves from the myth that the only and best way to raise a child depends on the presence of a man we call a father.”
It’s not the only way, obviously. But by every relevant statistical measure, it is the best.