March 19, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 12

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    Where are the fathers?

    Study hopes to fill gap in information on absent African-American fathers

    By Catherine Behan
    News Office

    More than 70 percent of African-American children are born out of wedlock, with the majority raised by single mothers.

    Where are the fathers?

    Waldo Johnson, Jr., Assistant Professor in the School of Social Service Administration, intends to find out.

    A scholar on the status of African-American fathers, Johnson is one of 10 investigators in the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study, a national longtitudinal study -- the first of its kind -- on unmarried parents and their children. His segment of the study focuses on unmarried, low-income, African-American non-resident fathers.

    "The study is designed to understand the circumstances of young, unmarried parents," Johnson said. "We have developed extensive public policy about these parents without any real information about them."

    While researchers have gathered some information about single mothers, complementary information about single fathers, especially low-income, African-American, single non-resident fathers, is virtually unknown. In addition, how these unmarried couples interact in negotiating parenthood is also unknown.

    The general perception, Johnson said, is that these fathers are not only absent, but they don't offer support -- financial or otherwise -- and don't care about their children. But a preliminary study of 20 unwed African-American mothers and 14 fathers residing in Chicago shows that the relationship between low-income, African-American fathers and their children is much more complex than that.

    The relationship can be dramatically affected by a multitude of issues, Johnson said, such as the father's ability to provide financial support, the relationship between the mother and father, and the relationship between the unwed parents' families. According to preliminary findings, the mothers of unmarried parents may be particularly influential in whether a young unmarried couple continues their relationship and the degree to which a father is involved with his children.

    The current study will determine what factors promote as well as inhibit fathers' relationships with their children, and address ways that public policy can potentially strengthen those relationships.

    "We hope to identify the areas where there is some relationship between the fathers' involvement and their children's well-being, and recommend policies that can increase that interaction, including the provision of financial and emotional support to children of unwed fathers," Johnson said.

    A major tenet of the most recent U.S. welfare reform law focuses on unwed fathers: make them take responsibility and make them pay child support.

    "The belief is that all non-resident fathers are deadbeat dads who could provide for their children but choose not to," Johnson said. "There are some of those men, and those fathers should be held accountable for their children. But there are more low-income, poorly educated fathers with weak connections to the work force who want to be a part of their children's lives, but don't know how. The researchers on this study want to know what kinds of things are hindering these fathers from making a commitment to their children." Policies aimed at these fathers require a different set of interventions.

    Many of the fathers in the Chicago pilot study were either out of work or sporadically employed. Among those employed fathers, many worked "off the books," or in marginally paying, non-permanent jobs that paid workers cash -- without any unemployment or health benefits.

    "That could help explain why they aren't married or residing with their children," Johnson said. "If they think they can't be a provider for their children and their wives, they may choose to stay away from the family." They are also 'pushed out' because of their inability to support their families.

    Johnson said the study will provide the empirical evidence that is needed to make sound policy decisions affecting children of unwed parents, and perhaps provoke change to encourage greater involvement among the unmarried non-resident fathers. He pointed out that current welfare reform provisions offer job and skill training to mothers, for example, but not fathers -- and yet nearly all of the fathers in the study were minimally employed or under-employed.