Consider this scenario: A 19-year-old man in Harlem is dating an 18-year-old woman, a friend of a friend whom he met in high school. Both have no plans to go to college, and both come from low-income backgrounds. Neither wants to get married anytime soon, and they make it clear to each other that, despite the fact that many of their siblings and friends have children, they're not ready for that responsibility.
Until she gets pregnant and everything changes.
The man, who is unemployed and who has already had several run-ins with the law, reminds her that he's not ready to be a father. But she's had a change of heart; she's keeping the baby. If he doesn't financially support it, she informs him, she's going to the police to press charges with the child-support enforcement agency, which can garnish his tax refunds, suspend his driver's license or put him in jail for failure to pay. Our story ends with the young man trying to formulate a 21-year plan (in New York, child support needs to be paid until the child is 21) to provide money he rarely has to a kid he never wanted.
It's an age-old conundrum. And with more than 23 million American children living without their fathers, it's a conundrum with serious ramifications. One year ago, President Barack Obama launched his "fatherhood initiative" to promote male parenting through educational forums and transitional jobs programs for the unemployed. But such programs can take a while before they show real results. And one Brown University researcher is suggesting a controversial solution to the problem before it starts: the financial abortion.
In other words, what if a man who has made it perfectly clear in advance that he does not want to be a father, is able to walk away from any and all financial obligations if his partner does become pregnant against his wishes? Would "choice" extend to him as well? Would that cut down on the number of children living without their biological fathers?
Last month, on the one-year anniversary of the initiative, President Obama said that he "can't legislate fatherhood." And yet to many men throughout the United States — men maligned by the media as "deadbeat dads," men in prison for dereliction of daddy — it seems as if the government is doing exactly that, requiring by law that all men with children fit its definition of a good father (which often requires writing hefty checks). What's more, even when men make it very clear to their partners that they don't want to be fathers in the first place, America's answer is simple: Sorry; either remain celibate and childless, or have intercourse and be prepared to relinquish all decisions about a pregnancy to your partner, who, when it comes to child support payments, has the full support of the U.S. government.
But what of men who, resources or not, have no desire to be fathers?
Professor Frances Goldscheider teaches sociology at Brown, where she came up with the idea that, she says, has made her question some of her deepest, most long-standing beliefs: "While I thought I was a feminist all my life, when I started studying the family and fatherhood in general, I realized that I was really an egalitarian. I want a level playing field in the family for men and women."
If it were law, a financial abortion would allow a man — one who has specifically said to his partner before intercourse that he doesn't want to be a father — to void all monetary responsibility for any pregnancy. Without question, the woman could carry the child to term, but she and the law could then never come looking for the dad for child support. It sounds harsh — so much so that Goldscheider admits it will probably never be more than a dream theory — but proponents believe that such a policy could very well make a huge dent in the nation's scourge of absentee fathers, especially in the African-American community.
"I think it would primarily benefit men who do not want to be fathers," Goldscheider says, "and that's mostly those who are not ready, whether financially or whatever. And given the structure of inequality in this country, it should disproportionately benefit young black men."
Not all academics agree with such a drastic measure. But there is some consensus that there's got to be a better way, particularly for lower-income fathers.
"It's all punitive — be a good father or else," says Maria Kefalas, a sociology professor at St. Joseph's University who, along with her colleague from Harvard Kathryn Edin, wrote Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. "It's a completely insane policy that says, 'By the way, when you fail to contribute [to your child] economically, we'll lock you up. And when you're locked up, you still have to pay the money you owe, and you don't get to see your kids.' " (Kefalas says that prison officials have told her they prefer that children do not visit their fathers in prison, so as not to "reward" the inmates.)
Exacerbating America's propensity to punish fathers it deems unfit is the fact that, in low-income communities, the definition of fatherhood is far different from what it is in the middle class, according to Kefalas. "If you push them about what being a father means, men and women describe it as someone who will always be part of the mother's life and the child's life," she says. "It's almost a proxy for marriage. The men say, 'I might get locked up and my life might take me to other places, but I'll always have a connection to you and this child.' "
That, Kefalas says, is when the fatherhood initiative gets messy. "Because what [the government] is saying is, 'We want you to behave like middle-class fathers, despite the fact that you have no middle-class resources."
Carey Casey, CEO of the National Center for Fathering, echoes Kefalas sentiments, saying, "A lot of time, people speak about deadbeat dads, but we are realizing there are dead-broke dads." Casey, whose nonprofit organization provides training programs and resources for underprepared fathers, wouldn't comment on financial abortions, but he did say that men who don't want to be dads should "keep their stuff in their pants." For those who don't, he stresses the importance of recognizing that good fathering can mean simply being present, even if they can't provide financially for their children. "Just be there," he says. "There are no perfect dads."
Among young parents, Hamer found, "there's no conversation about what it means to be a parent. That was part of the issue for these men; they didn't really understand what their place was."
Kefalas, on the other hand, says that her research yielded almost the opposite conclusion: Not only were young men discussing the possibility of children with their sexual partners, but they also talked to their women about wanting babies.
"A very distinctive phenomenon among low-income populations, across white, Hispanic and black men, was that you'd hear guys going, 'I wanna have a baby by you' to their 17-year-old girlfriend," Kefalas says. "Now, what does that mean? A cynic would say it's just a pickup line, and I'm sure there are young men who say it in that cynical sense. But I also believe that in that moment, many of them believe it to a certain extent."
(Here, it's important to remember that not all absent fathers were never married to their child's mother. In a study from 1991, only 39 percent of the lone mothers sampled were never married.)
Hamer says she's "not sure she'd disagree" with financial abortions, but she's skeptical of their success in low-income communities. "I think it would have a greater impact on men who actually have the means to provide financial assistance to their children."
The researchers agree that, in the end, fatherhood in America is so inextricably linked to financial support that many young black dads end up having ersatz financial abortions simply by leaving their families.
"Everyone's invoking this cultural script about parenting and ignoring the fact that, in both legal and civil society, fatherhood is defined by economic ability," says Kefalas. "And you have this whole class of men who are systematically blocked from achieving those economic requirements."
Adds Hamer, "It's not that these men have different values than middle-income men. They want their child to go to college, they want to be able to take their child to Disneyworld, they want all those things — it's just not possible."
Cord Jefferson is a staff writer for The Root. Follow him on Twitter.