Welfare, Fathers and Those Persistent Myths

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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.

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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.

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"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.

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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."

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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."

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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.

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"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.

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"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."

Change Comes to Policy?

Jones is encouraged, however, by recent efforts to challenge this status quo. Among the legislative proposals in President Obama's 2012 budget is $570 million for states to include access and visitation in child-support agreements. Not only would this ensure that children have relationships with both parents, but it could also lead to more regular child-support payments, since studies show that fathers are more likely to meet financial obligations when they spend time with their kids.

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"That is huge in terms of public policy," said Jones. "There's a long way to go before that is made law, but for this administration to propose it, and to have debate about how to move it forward, is the first time that I can ever recall it happening in a substantive way."

Jones and Warren both served on the president's Task Force for Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families. The advisory panel has also informed initiatives such as Fathering Reentry Courts, to reconnect ex-offenders with their families, and the newly announced Year of Strong Fathers, Strong Families campaign, which partners with various organizations to sponsor free and discounted father-child outings.

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As for HUD's work around fatherhood, Deputy Secretary Sims maintains that the agency's commitment goes beyond the upcoming events this weekend. At the local level, housing authorities in cities including New York City, Milwaukee and Memphis, Tenn., have begun to regularly offer services for dads that include job training, educational support, help with understanding their rights within the family-court system and parent-infant classes.

"More and more, we're seeing local housing authorities understand the importance of a united family," said Sims. "We want the federal government to be part of the solution."

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Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.

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