Published April 28, 2022
Republicans, we’re told, should “lean into the culture war.” Not every battle in that conflict is worth wasting powder on, but the Right does have the upper hand on at least one: the pervasive problem of absent fathers.
In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama talked openly about how “too many fathers are missing—missing from too many lives and too many homes . . . and the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.” These days progressives, to the extent they mention the problem at all, criticize rhetoric on absent fathers for valorizing two-parent family structures.
This has left the field wide open for conservatives like Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Earlier this month, DeSantis signed a bill that devotes $70 million to promoting “responsible and involved fatherhood” in the state. The legislative package marks an important step in strengthening incentives and bolstering organizations that can help advance that goal. (For the sake of full disclosure, I am part of an informal working group that provided feedback to the DeSantis administration in advance of the initiative’s launch.)
The law introduces grants for nonprofit organizations to respond to fathers’ needs, such as job training, child support, and parenting skills, and instructs the Department of Children and Families to streamline and publicize those resources to ensure they are widely available. It directs the state health department to include activities that engage fathers in its maternal- and child-health programs. It funds mentorship programs, which ideally will include an array of community partners in addition to traditional mentorship organizations. As I wrote last winter, the benefit of mentorship lies largely in increasing the number of caring adults in a child’s life.
Since men who become fathers out of wedlock tend to have lower earnings potential, government efforts should take an approach that rewards them for doing the right thing. The new law directs the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to offer grants to organizations serving unemployed or under-employed noncustodial parents who have difficulty meeting child-support obligations. Programs like this tend not to demonstrate immediate results, but evidence suggests that they change fathers’ attitudes toward child support and increase their sense of responsibility for their children. Committing to long-term experimentation with programs to help this population become self-sufficient (along with reducing marriage penalties in taxation and spending) could boost the likelihood that more Florida children are raised in two-parent households.
Of course, rebuilding family life, particularly among low-income groups, requires more than a pilot program or a legislative agenda. The breakdown of the family has unfolded over decades. Though the rise in single parenthood has plateaued in recent years, continuing to reverse these long-standing social trends will require involvement not just from public policy but also from churches, civic groups, media organizations, and other institutions of civil society.
Progressives shy away from talking about family life for fear of sounding moralistic, while conservatives too often rely on the bully pulpit rather than government resources. Using the state’s ability to bolster civil society is the right way to go about reviving family life and figuring out what skills and resources men need to be engaged fathers. It’s not a problem that can be solved merely by fiddling with the dials of public policy, but taking the state’s ability to influence culture seriously is a good start.
In 2008, Obama probably could have signed on to an initiative like Florida’s, but today’s progressives can’t bring themselves to do so. Keith Olbermann, the acerbic sports-cum-politics commentator, called former NFL coach Tony Dungy a “fraud” and “fascist political prop” for his endorsement of the Florida program. Liberals who never met a government spending program they didn’t like suddenly express concerns about cost-benefit analysis. Because single parenthood disproportionately affects black households, progressives imply that caring about whether kids are raised without a father is somehow racially suspect. (Lest we forget: the Black Lives Matter national organization once called for abolishing the “Western-prescribed nuclear family,” until the group quietly scrubbed that item from its website.)
Social science backs up the intuition that children do best with married parents. While belief in marriage’s importance has slid over time, most Americans still think it’s at least somewhat important for children to benefit from such stability. For young men, especially, having fathers in the picture can be a decisive factor, not just for their economic prospects later in life but in providing them with role models.
In a saner world, getting fathers more invested in their kids’ lives would be a winning political proposition for the Right and the Left. But if progressives want to cede that political high ground, conservatives should happily occupy it alone.