Welfare, Fathers and Those Persistent Myths

Confronting the common belief that public assistance undermines the family structure, new federal efforts are designed to engage fathers and dispel myths.

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Black two-parent homes continued to plummet over the next 20 years, hitting 38 percent in 1990, where it has since remained. But Andrew Billingsley, a sociologist acclaimed for his pioneering work tracing the African-American family, attributes the abrupt change in family structure not to welfare policies but to rising unemployment.

"What happened in the mid-1950s were technological changes that abolished unskilled jobs that most black men could do and created high-tech jobs that they couldn't," Billingsley told The Root, explaining that the advent of efficient, goods-producing machines drove millions of black men out of the stable blue-collar work force. "That's what kept black families from getting and staying married, not the welfare system. To say otherwise is a misunderstanding of the data, and it's a misreading of history."

On the subject of common misconceptions about public assistance, HUD would like to clarify that there is no public-housing eligibility requirement that excludes couples. Some states used to apply such regulations, but the Supreme Court struck those down in 1968.

"The notion that we have rules prohibiting fathers from living in the home is simply not true," said Sims, who added that the agency does take income levels into consideration. "But if two parents are working and don't qualify, we have a significant supply of other affordable-housing programs around the country for them."

Another idea swirling around is that people convicted of crimes aren't eligible for public housing. "Under the national policy, there are only two crimes for which we prohibit anyone from coming in, and that's if you sold [methamphetamine] or if you are a lifetime registered sex offender," Sims explained. Yet local authorities can set other standards, and some do bar applicants with records. "Our goal is family reunification -- we've let local housing authorities know that we want that changed," said Sims.

The Child-Support Battle

Misunderstandings aside, many fatherhood-resource organizations call attention to the ways in which men are discounted by public-assistance programs that are designed around mothers and children. Under the welfare-to-work model currently used across the country, single moms can gain access to maternal health services, child care assistance, food stamps, affordable housing, temporary cash assistance and job-skills training. Meanwhile, the only time the system focuses on fathers is to collect child-support payments.

"The child-support-enforcement system isn't really concerned about whether the father is engaged in his kid's life. All it's concerned about is whether they're paying for their kids," said Warren. "From the government's perspective, if you have the ability to provide economically, then you're a good father. If you don't have the economic ability, then you're not, and [the government doesn't see] any value there."

Joseph T. Jones, the president and founder of the Center for Urban Families, a Baltimore-based organization that provides a range of supports for low-income fathers, adds that this singular focus on child support instantly creates a wedge between parents.

"It's not in the father's natural best interest to be with the mother when she goes to the welfare office," he told The Root, explaining that caseworkers order child-support payments to reabsorb some of the costs of welfare benefits. "And if the parents are no longer romantically involved, the mother is now the gatekeeper to whether or not the father can have a relationship with the child. The system enforces the collection side of child support, but [not] access and visitation."