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Paying Daddy to Be Dad

The Huffington Post • Oct. 10, 2006

Forget marriage promotion as the solution to poverty. New York State is taking on fathers. The move has been a long time in coming; for all the success welfare reform had in moving single mothers into jobs–albeit low-wage ones–it’s largely been a failure at doing the same for men.

Here in New York, the state welfare agency is launching a special tax credit for noncustodial parents, at least 90 percent of whom are fathers, to encourage (and make it easier for) them to pay child support–the first of its kind in the country. Parents up to date on their child support can get up to $1600 back at tax time–and they don’t cease to be eligible for the program until their income exceeds $32,000 annually, a far more generous threshold than the regular EITC.

What’s more, the same initiative will be tied into a series of pilot programs designed to both teach noncustodial dads how to maintain roles as active fathers and get and hold a steady job. Enrollment in these programs will be voluntary, although it will be offered as an alternative to jail if a father ends up in court for failing to pay child support.

Combining a tax incentive that rewards work with fatherhood classes alone marks an interesting synergy between liberal work encouragement and conservative social engineering. Adding a serious employment focus breaks new ground, and answers one of the most salient critiques one can launch at marriage promotion-type programs: That without bringing poor men into the workforce, such initiatives will struggle to make a dent in poverty.

Even as the share of women working has risen steadily, men have failed to keep up. The divide is worst for black men. In New York City, more than one-third of adult black men are not working, compared to one-quarter of white men. For all the efforts made to put single moms to work, little energy has been devoted to the men that conservatives suggest they should marry. (Jason DeParle has written eloquently about this.)

For me, this creates an uncomfortable tension between wanting to help–and being wary of excessive state involvement in people’s lives. On the one hand, parents helping to support a child ought to able to get help from the state, just as those directly responsible for the child does; efforts the state can make to help them do that independently are likely worth the investment. On the other, is it really the government’s business to teach men how to be fathers?

I’ve spoken with several men in these kinds of programs, all of whom speak glowingly about them–one interviewee, who’d only recently begun seeing his six-year-old son regularly, called back to leave a message on my voicemail saying, “I just wanted to say that the program was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Now, that’s not necessarily an unbiased sample. As happens with most journalists on deadline, these are the men that program administrators put me in touch with, so I’m likely dealing with the cream of the crop. But I can’t help but think their enthusiasm speaks to a need for something that helps to build the complicated set of skills needed to be a good parent. So on that level, I have a lot of sympathy for and interest in these programs. As a reporter, what’s ultimately important is whether or not something actually works, not whether it corresponds to my own personal ideologies.

At the same time, focusing directly on parenting skills suggests that poor people simply don’t know any better. Sometimes that’s the case–as it can often be in more affluent families. And it’s usually far more complicated. Simple daily life can undermine even the most diligent parent, and the stresses of poverty multiply that tenfold.

It’s that interplay between personal responsibility–parenting–and structural barriers–employment–that makes this particular effort so interesting. By recognizing the need for both support in parenting and real jobs, New York State could be hitting on something.

Let me be clear: I do not like the idea of the state being involved in teaching parenting. But I’m also not a noncustodial, low income dad trying to navigate the intricacies of the low wage workforce and the mother of my child. I’ve heard enough from people in those shoes to suggest that I might want to suspend judgment until I see its results–or at least get out there and do some more reporting.

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