Addressing a packed congregation at one of the city’s largest black churches, Senator Barack Obama on Sunday invoked his own absent father to deliver a sharp message to African-American men, saying, “We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception.”I don't think Obama's going to be able to go as far as Bill Cosby on this issue, although I wish he would. No other political or social phenomenon has had as detremental an impact on the life chances of young black Americans than the collapse of the traditional black family.
“Too many fathers are M.I.A, too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes,” Mr. Obama said, to a chorus of approving murmurs from the audience. “They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”
The speech was striking for its setting, and in how Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, directly addressed one of the most sensitive topics in the African-American community: whether absent fathers bore responsibility for some of the intractable problems afflicting black Americans. Mr. Obama noted that “more than half of all black children live in single-parent households,” a number that he said had doubled since his own childhood.
Accompanied by his wife, Michelle, and his daughters, Malia and Sasha, who sat in the front pew, Mr. Obama laid out his case in stark terms that would be difficult for a white candidate to make, telling the mostly black audience not to “just sit in the house watching SportsCenter,” and to stop praising themselves for mediocre accomplishments.
“Don’t get carried away with that eighth-grade graduation,” he said, bringing many members of the congregation to their feet, applauding. “You’re supposed to graduate from eighth grade.”
His themes have been also been sounded by the comedian Bill Cosby, who has stirred debate among black Americans by bluntly speaking about an epidemic of fatherless African-American families while suggesting that some blacks use racism as a crutch to explain lack of economic progress.
Juan Williams wrote a powerful essay on the topic this weekend, at the Wall Street Journal:
The extent of the problem is clear. The nation's out-of-wedlock birth rate is 38%. Among white children, 28% are now born to a single mother; among Hispanic children it is 50% and reaches a chilling, disorienting peak of 71% for black children. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, nearly a quarter of America's white children (22%) do not have any male in their homes; nearly a third (31%) of Hispanic children and over half of black children (56%) are fatherless.The statistics indicate the phenomenon of "father hunger" for all sociodemographic groups, but there's simply nothing comparable to the overwhelming statistics of nearly three-quarters of black kids growing up without dad.
This represents a dramatic shift in American life. In the early 1960s, only 2.3% of white children and 24% of black children were born to a single mom. Having a dad, in short, is now a privilege, a ticket to middle-class status on par with getting into a good college.
The odds increase for a child's success with the psychological and financial stability rooted in having two parents. Having two parents means there is a greater likelihood that someone will read to a child as a preschooler, support him through school, and prevent him from dropping out, as well as teaching him how to compete, win and lose and get up to try again, in academics, athletics and the arts. Maybe most important of all is that having a dad at home is almost a certain ticket out of poverty; because about 40% of single-mother families are in poverty.
"If you are concerned about reducing child poverty then you have to focus on missing fathers," says Roland Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, based in Gaithersburg, Md. This organization works to encourage more men to be involved fathers.
The odds are higher that a child without a dad will have more contact with the drug culture, the police and jail. Even in kindergarten, children living with single parents are more likely to trail children with two parents when it comes to health, cognitive skills and their emotional maturity. They are in the back of the bus before the bus – their life – even gets going.
A study of black families 10 years ago, when the out-of-wedlock birthrate was not as high as today, found that single moms reported only 20% of the "baby's daddy" spent time with the child or took a "lot" of interest in the baby. That is quite a contrast to the married black mothers who told researchers that 88% of married black men, or men living with the mother, regularly spent time with the child and took responsibility for the child's well-being.
Which is why I was a little surprised at Ann Althouse yesterday, who ridiculed Obama's speech from a feminist perspective:
There are a lot of women raising children alone — or with another woman — who don't like to think that their children are missing some special "guide" or "leader" because there is no male parent figure. This is not to say that such women don't see the value of a good father, only that they find something offensive in saying that the "male figure" in particular is needed. And Obama is saying that it is so important that it left a hole in his heart:I'm with Obama on this one, and in jest I left my two-cents at the Althouse comment thread (and don't miss the reply).“I know the toll it took on me, not having a father in the house,” he continued. “The hole in your heart when you don’t have a male figure in the home who can guide you and lead you. So I resolved many years ago that it was my obligation to break the cycle — that that if I could be anything in life, I would be a good father to my children."Now, I know what he is trying to do is to push more men to be involved in their children's lives, but the way he is saying it, he is siding with traditionalists who think the male role is special, distinctive, and necessary.
But let Joanne Jacobs respond specifically to Althouse, since the feminist angle's not my specialty:
Children who grow up with two married parents do the best on measures of wellbeing; they also cope very well if a parent dies. Divorce hurts; acquiring a stepfather doesn’t help much. It’s better to be the child of divorce than the child of never-married parents: Divorced fathers are much more involved with their children than never-married fathers. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions, but this is what I heard from a researcher at a seminar on child poverty about 12 years ago.I don't know which "researcher" Jacobs' is referring to, but social science studies indicate the powerful role of missing fathers in the life outcomes of kids in the black community.
For all the talk of "courage" in making the speech yesterday, Obama's still got a lot of work to do with conservatives on the issue. See, "Obama’s Fatherhood Talk Is Cheap: Act, Senator. Do It for the Children."