With a centennial celebration of Father’s Day coming next month, and a new president committed to supporting better parenting, liberals and conservatives alike say the political stars may be aligned for major progress in promoting responsible fatherhood.
It’s an issue that’s been divisive in the past, even as research made clear that the estimated 24 million children growing up with absent fathers — a disproportionate number of them African-American — are at higher risk in regard to poverty, crime and other social problems.
But the left-right divide over the government’s role in solidifying such families appears to be narrowing at this stage of Barack Obama’s presidency.
“This is a watershed moment, to say the least,” said Roland Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative. “With President Obama — the first African-American husband and father in the White House — there’s a unique opportunity here to draw attention to the issue.”
Numerous events are planned around Father’s Day — ranging from policy symposiums to a National Rally for Responsible Fatherhood at the Lincoln Memorial. Obama, raised in the absence of his own father, has been invited to the rally and is expected to mark the day with an appeal for men to be more involved in their children’s lives.
Other rallies will be held nationwide, said a lead organizer, Jeffery Johnson of the National Partnership for Community Leadership. “We want a million men to make a commitment to be the best dads they can.”
The events celebrate the nation’s 100th Father’s Day, dating from observances in Spokane, Wash., on June 19, 1910. A Father’s Day also had been observed two years earlier in Fairmont, W.Va.
Obama already has demonstrated his interest in fatherhood issues in multiple ways.
He is a past co-sponsor of an ambitious fatherhood bill that Democrats Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Rep. Danny Davis of Illinois plan to reintroduce in conjunction with Father’s Day. Many of its provisions are aimed at removing barriers that deter noncustodial fathers from providing financial support to their children.
Obama also has designated responsible fatherhood as one of the four priorities of his new faith-based advisory council, a politically diverse group of religious and civic leaders.
“This could be the real signature issue of this council,” said Jim Wallis, founder of the liberal Christian social-justice network Sojourners. “If we’re going to pursue this — and we must — you need to break up the left-right culture-wars polarities.”
Among the conservative council members sensing new opportunities on fatherhood is the Rev. Frank Page, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
In the past, Page said, Republicans addressing fatherhood problems tended to emphasize the need for individual responsibility, while Democrats proposed government intervention.
“That’s why I am encouraged to see our president stressing personal responsibility of fathers,” Page said. “I’m an evangelical, not a member of his party, but I have to say congratulations — what an encouragement it is to see the way he fathers his two daughters.
“It’s a good time to approach this issue,” Page added. “I think we may get behind some of the divisiveness that may have erupted in the past.”
Page said the evolution of the responsible fatherhood movement has buttressed the conservative viewpoint that children fare best when raised by both a mother and father — a viewpoint that has prompted supporters of same-sex marriage to counter that children from gay-parented families fare equally well.
“The challenge we have is to be respectful of all families even as we promote responsible fatherhood,” said advisory council member Harry Knox of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group.
Over the years, some women’s rights leaders have been wary of fatherhood initiatives, suggesting that the needs of low-income single mothers were great and should not be slighted by tailoring support programs for fathers.
“No one objects to responsible fatherhood,” said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. “What we object to is the use of very limited welfare funds that are needed for the support of children being diverted into job training and other programs for fathers that are not available to the mothers.”
Joshua DuBois, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said Obama’s record on women’s rights should help ease any concerns over his interest in fatherhood.
“The president has been such a solid supporter of women’s issues,” DuBois said. “They know he’s not going to do anything to compromise the position of women in their families, and that trust is key in the search for common ground.”
Scores of fatherhood programs already are flourishing around the country, but advocacy groups say there is a huge need for more funding and resources to provide job training, offer domestic-violence counseling and assist fathers re-entering their communities from prison.
The Bayh-Davis bill would meet some of those needs.
“We spend billions of dollars dealing with the problems that fatherlessness can cause,” Bayh said. “Now we’re getting into the root causes. … A number of forces are all coming together at one moment to create a palpable sense of possibility.”
For advocates who’ve been working on fatherhood problems over many years, there’s a particular excitement.
“We hope that the stars are aligning in a way that will enable to us to get some things done that are long overdue,” said Professor Ronald Mincy, who teaches at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. “We have a president who’s been very forceful on this issue — no one has to motivate him. Now it’s time to put his money where his mouth is.”
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.