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.

Struggling to keep a man in the home, from the movie "Claudine" (20th Century Fox)
Struggling to keep a man in the home, from the movie "Claudine" (20th Century Fox)

Does the state discourage poor fathers from being present in their children’s lives? There are the emblematic images, like Diahann Carroll as a single mother on welfare in the 1974 movie Claudine, struggling to hide her boyfriend from a social worker.

Urban legends tell of “man in the house” rules that prohibit men from living under the same roof as moms who receive public assistance. Between media images, half-truths — and also well-meaning but flawed policies — the belief that the welfare system undermines poor families has been entrenched in the public mind for decades.

Now, with new fatherhood initiatives at public-housing authorities nationwide, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is seeking to debunk that idea.

“All of us realize the critical importance of fathers in the home,” Ron Sims, deputy secretary of HUD, told The Root. “We want fathers to understand that they are welcome at our housing-authority sites, and that we want them there to play meaningful roles in raising their children and supporting the women that they’ve been with.”

In time for Father’s Day, HUD officials are hosting fairs this weekend at 200 public-housing authorities across the country to celebrate fatherhood and families. The events will feature appearances by NFL athletes and fun activities for kids, as well as information about social services — from various federal agencies, including the departments of Labor, Education and Justice — for dads. “HUD and our partners want to provide support for the fathers there, to address questions and needs that they may have,” said Sims.

But officials will have their work cut out for them to get past the perception that their programs are only for women and children — especially when current policies can inadvertently deter fathers from sticking around.

“It’s too broad to say that these programs are destroying the black family,” Roland Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, said to The Root about public assistance’s bad rap. “Candidly, if anything destroys families, it’s choices that individuals make. But I would say that there are systems in place, well meaning as they may be, that incentivize people to make choices that ultimately don’t strengthen the black family.”

Clearing Up Misconceptions

A particular fact that those giving the side eye to the American welfare system often trot out is that in 1890, married couples headed 80 percent of all black households. The figure held constant over the next seven decades, through 1960. However, by 1970 — after President Lyndon B. Johnson established social reforms like WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), food stamps, Medicaid and public-housing projects — black families with mothers and fathers at home had fallen to 64 percent.