By Walker Stevens
Engaged fathers play an important role in the healthy development of a child from birth to adulthood, and this is certainly true during the time-sensitive first three years of a child’s life.
From their social and behavioral development, to their educational and economic outcomes as adults, the presence or absence of a father can greatly influence a child’s long-term health and success.
According to The Fatherhood Project, children with close relationships with their fathers are twice as likely to enter college, half as likely to experience depression, 75% less likely to have a teen birth, and 80% less likely to experience incarceration. Children with engaged fathers are also 43% more likely to earn A’s in school and 33% less likely to repeat a grade level. While the importance of father engagement for children is recognized across all demographics, the issue is exacerbated within the Black community: 56% of Black children live with only a mother, compared to 31% of Hispanic children and 17% of white children. This race-based disproportionality is often generated by policies that promote the systemic break-up of Black families, such as the over-policing of Black neighborhoods, the disproportionate incarceration of Black men for committing the same crimes, and the bias against fathers ingrained in the welfare system.
To ensure equitable outcomes for the Black community, and all communities, policymakers can address the systemic barriers that prevent fathers and Black fathers specifically, from actively engaging in their children’s lives. When it comes to navigating the systemic barriers that prevent fathers from being engaged, Black fathers are at a double disadvantage by facing both gender and racial bias. First, Black men face a higher rate of unemployment and a much lower rate of upward mobility in employment than white men. This often forces Black men to move where employment is available, even if it means moving away from their child.
Black men also face a higher rate of incarceration and disproportionately harsher sentences for committing the same crimes as men of other races. Once a man is incarcerated his children no longer have a father at home, he is unable to provide economic support, and it becomes more difficult to find employment after his release.
Child support enforcement policies offer an opportunity to prioritize the development of children by increasing father engagement. While the law in most states expressly separates parenting time from child support payment, in practice, judges often link parenting time to fathers’ ability to make child support payments
In addition, nine states link SNAP benefits to child support compliance, which in some cases limits families’ access to food assistance. Separating parenting time from fathers’ ability to make child support payments ensures children are not adversely affected by loss of time with their fathers, that children are not punished for their father’s economic hardships, and that fathers are encouraged to remain engaged in their children’s lives. Furthermore, separating the provision of SNAP benefits from child support compliance ensures children are not hungry or malnourished because a parent is not complying with child support enforcement orders.
Policymakers have the power to break down systemic barriers and create a more equitable environment for Black fathers and their children. David Bryant, a Father Engagement Coordinator at Community Action, Inc. of Central Texas, says, “The most important thing we can do is view Black men as somebody’s father.”
According to Mosely Hobson, a program specialist at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, Ohio’s fatherhood initiatives are the “gold standard” that Texas is attempting to replicate. In 1999, the Ohio Legislature created the Ohio Commission on Fatherhood. The commission seeks to improve the economic stability of fathers and children by helping fathers find and maintain stable employment, offering responsible parenting classes and mentoring, making policy recommendations, and training county leaders to promote responsible fatherhood.
One opportunity for policymakers is to find ways to help incarcerated fathers remain engaged in their children’s lives both during and after their release. The Lorain County Correctional Institution in Ohio holds an Annual Fatherhood Conference, where guests and former inmates speak to incarcerated fathers to offer advice on communicating with their children, and children engage in face painting, sports, and other activities with their fathers. The conference helps children adapt to their father’s incarceration and keeps incarcerated fathers involved in their children’s lives.
Despite our intentions, public policies sometimes have adverse effects on families. NCSL can provide resources to help legislators take whole-family approaches to policymaking.
Walker Stevens was an intern in NCSL's Children and Families Program.