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Fatherless America

By Harald Breiding-Buss

American politicians complain loudly about the fatherlessness of their country’s youth. But their worries do not extend beyond fathers’ wallets.

“International” is not a word many Americans can relate to easily; coming from New Zealand you have to be prepared to be asked how long the journey took – by car.

And so the International Fatherhood Conference in Atlanta last month included only perhaps two dozen non-American delegates out of a total that exceeded 1000. Travel reimbursements for those invited attendees such as myself could be had in either cash or US cheque.

Conference material sent to me before the conference omitted such benign things such as the international phone code for the US. If it hadn’t been for the Holland-based Bernard-van-Leer Foundation, which sponsored the participation of eight non-American workshop presenters, the conference organisers might as well have scrapped the “inter” altogether.

Perhaps it wasn’t surprising, then, that the American keynote speakers found themselves at odds with pretty much the rest of the represented world.

The imperial underdogs from the UK and its former colonies closed ranks, and were joined by Japanese, Egyptian and other non-American delegates at the place where the most important stuff happens at any conference – the hotel bar. There we could share some of our disbelief as to where America seems to be heading on the father theme.

A national “fatherhood initiative” had been announced by the previous president Clinton already, before it became unclear whether that merely meant his initiatives with female White House staff.

But while there is much hullabaloo about “fatherlessness” in America, the real concern appeared to be about “child supportlessness”. Georgia’s Secretary of State announced that since the Georgia “fatherhood initiative” had been launched, the state has collected 3 billion dollars extra in child support. “This is how we connect fathers with their families” he announced after proudly relating this figure.


The initiator of that programme was made “Honorary Citizen of the State of Georgia” and, to top it up, received the “Spirit of Fatherhood” award.

America’s “fatherlessness” statistics are horrific enough – officially, more children are born into homes without a father than within, and in the Afro-American community that figure allegedly approaches 80%.

But as in New Zealand, for families on welfare there are strong incentives not to get married and not to tell the authorities you are living together.

Researchers from Michigan State University, who researched the father-child relationship of fathers from low socio-economic backgrounds (i.e. welfare recipients enrolled in compulsory state-run programmes ), covering 10 states and 3000 families, discovered to their surprise that more than 80% of children did live together with both their natural parents in a sample including 48% non-white participants!

If we are to believe the official statistics, based on what people tell the welfare authorities, the majority of those children should have been “fatherless”.

There are some clues as to the whereabouts of the other 20%. In the Land of the Free, if you are a non-custodial dad the judge determines the amount of child support you have to pay.

If you are lucky they will consider your income. If he or she doesn’t like your face they won’t.

If you can’t pay you went to prison. Note the emphasis on the word can’t pay, not don’t want to. No wonder America has the highest incarceration rate in the Western World.

So while America was sending scores of fathers into prison for no other reason than being poor, it was entirely unconcerned about this self-created “fatherlessness”.

You see, these fathers couldn’t provide and that rendered them useless as fathers. As one conference speaker put it: “Let’s face it, this [conference] is not really about fathers, it is about poverty.” In other words: let’s not worry about dads, lets worry about their wallets.

Not long after him, however, Martin Luther King III spoke, relating how he initially was ashamed of his father being imprisoned until he realised that he had gone to prison for a better world. Let’s hope the children of those imprisoned American fathers of today will equally be proud of them regardless, but I don’t want to know what that will do to these children’s confidence in their country’s law enforcement authorities.

Georgia’s fatherhood programme now gives non-custodial fathers an option: work. And not just non-custodial fathers.

Every person on welfare in Georgia becomes subject to a rigorous and entirely mandatory welfare-to-work programme (titled “Early Head Start”), including a mandatory “life skills” programme, which gives me the shudders just thinking about it. Of course, for men that includes a non-violence section, whether there have been any incidents in the past or not.

One (female) worker in such a programme, who engaged in the admirable task of finding work for those guys in the land of no minimum wage, related to me that a lot of fathers complained that now they have less time for their children, and in the time that they have they are simply too exhausted.

Georgia has created more provider fathers (and a new supply of cheap labour), but at the same time it seems more absent fathers, too. For non-custodial fathers the option is, of course, either this or go to prison.

Or perhaps there is a third option, which becomes evident once you leave the safety of the Sheraton Hotel and head towards downtown Atlanta (substitute for any large American city). It took me only two minutes before I was approached by a probably homeless man for “change”. Perhaps he needed it to pay his child support?

Next: Children After Separation

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