Fighting Fatherlessness

Sam Fulwood III looks at a new book that hopes to spur a wider public conversation about the role of fathers in their families and in the larger American community.

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In the half-dozen or so years before he died, my father and I spent valuable time with each other, talking about and comparing the lives that each of us lived in our unique ways. He’s been gone for almost five years, but those last days with him, coinciding with my easing into middle age, rank among the most valuable on a long list of treasured memories.

It was during those talks that I learned little things about my father, a Presbyterian minister who wasn’t fond of introspective conversation, that I never knew before. One memorable example was that as a child—like me, he was a preacher’s son—he didn’t want to follow his father into the ministry. “No, I wanted to be a truck driver,” he said. “I wanted to get away, see the world, and I thought that’s what truck drivers did.”

That statement transported him back to his childhood. In that moment, the years that spanned our generations—his youth from mine—collapsed into a conversation between two gray-haired men. For me, it was a priceless opportunity to see my Daddy as he saw himself long, long before I was imagined.

I’m so grateful to own that memory, which returned to me as I read a review of a new book on fatherhood, Fatherhood: Rising to the Ultimate Challenge, written by former Washington Wizards player Etan Thomas. His life journey was nothing like mine. He didn’t have a father as a lifelong presence in his life like I did. His childhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was guided by a single mother and forged by an escapist (and in his case, attainable) dream to be a professional basketball star.

But like me, Thomas is black and is a married father. Both of us take those responsibilities very seriously. His book is intended to spur a wider public conversation about the role fathers play in the lives of their families and in the larger American community. In a highly favorable review of Thomas’s book, writer/musician Michael Lindgren writes in The Washington Post that the book may be viewed as “a primer for thoughtful fathers and children and as a particularly trenchant entry in the ongoing conversation on parenthood and race.”

Having that public conversation, however, is not easy. It’s complicated by a dizzying array of facts and statistics, which are often used to entrench an equally amazing set of perceptions and stereotypes. Unfortunately, all too often, race is at the heart of it. Pointing to the sad numbers in countless studies conducted since Daniel Moynihan’s 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” Thomas laments the rising rate of absentee fathers in black households.

According to the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 51 percent of black children (ages 0–17) lived in a single-mother household in 2011. By comparison, nearly a quarter of all children—a record rate—lived in a single-mother household. Clearly, even though the problem is growing, it’s more acute in black households.

Data such as these makes talking about fatherlessness all the more emotional and it renders the role of public policy a nonstarter. Indeed, Americans of all races are most uncomfortable with the idea of government intrusion into the most intimate spheres of our lives. Few areas seem more delicate than the role and responsibilities of parenting.

Yet many families are desperate for help. My colleague Joy Moses, a Senior Policy Analyst with the Center for American Progress’s Poverty and Prosperity program, told me that race isn’t the determining factor in the epidemic of fatherlessness. Poverty is.

“Anyone with good sense can see that growing economic instability is affecting families of all races and social strata,” she told me. “The downturn in our economy, the loss of jobs, and the income decline, especially among working-class men, are all having a negative effect on families. These issues have been noticed among black men and families for a long time, but recently it’s had a shockingly negative and apparent impact on white men and families, too.”

For the most part, we’ve targeted our social policies to the poorest Americans—a disproportionate share of them are black and Latino. But Moses believes there’s “a role for expanding public services for families that are in need” in higher-income groups. “We tend to think of our social policies directed to families as for low-income people, partly because we like to think they’re deficient or incapable of caring for their children,” she said. “But as more and more middle-class people lose their footing, we’re discovering that the stigma placed on the poor doesn’t apply to the middle class.”

I never thought that I was special or fortunate to have my father in my life, until after he died. Now, given the gift of his insights and guidance, I can’t imagine how it might have been if he’d never been there. I wish that for every child and I believe it’s possible.

Despite the dire news, there’s a silver lining to the dark cloud of absentee fathers. When the nation recognizes that poverty and economic inequality are at the root of family instability, we can find our path toward erasing the blight of absent fathers.

Thomas’s effort is a welcome compliment to the national conversation on fatherlessness. In addition to his own voice on the subject, his book brings together a diverse set of men—Rev. Al. Sharpton, Tony Hawk, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Howard Dean, and Yao Ming—to discuss the role of male parenting. That’s the ability of a star basketball player: to draw greater attention to the plight of fatherlessness. It’s a slam dunk that yet another statistic-filled white paper would never pull off.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)