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Turning the Corner on Father Absence in Black America

A Statement from the Morehouse Conference on African-American Fathers.

Institute for American Values
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"Are black fathers necessary? Damn straight we are."
William Raspberry, Keynote speaker, Morehouse Conference on African- American Fathers

Washington, June 16,1999 - A politically and racially diverse coalition of reformers, community leaders and scholars today marked the approach of Father's Day with a powerfully worded statement on the crisis in African-American fatherhood, calling on the Nation as a whole to support the movement to ``re-connect fathers and strengthen families." Among other action, the signers urge Congress to pass legislation that would authorize ``an additional $2 billion over the next five years for community-based fatherhood programs promoting both marriage and marriageability, especially for young, poorly educated, low-income men." The money would also be used for employment and parental skills training. Congress is poised to hold hearings on a ``Responsible Fatherhood" bill this month.

The statement, entitled Turning the Corner on Father Absence in Black America, is the product of a recent conference on African-American fathers and families, held at historically black Morehouse College.

The Morehouse signers also exhort the federal, state and local governments, and the leadership of the African-American community to recognize the high priority of restoring the black family, and to be creative about capitalizing on opportunities to act when they present themselves. Similarly, they encourage civil rights organizations to move this issue to the top of their agendas and bring the same intense dedication to rebuilding the black family as they have to obtaining basic civil rights.

Since Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D.-N.Y.) 35 years ago called black fatherlessness ``the fundamental weakness of the Negro community," the subject has been hot to the touch. But, new statistics show that an estimated ``80 percent of all African-American children will spend part of their childhood living apart from their fathers." Seventy percent of African-American children are born to unmarried mothers and 40 percent of all children regardless of race, live in homes without fathers, according to the Morehouse statement.

With notable exceptions, traditional conservatives blame fatherlessness and out-of-wedlock births on cultural breakdown and moral failure. Liberals have long held that the problem in the African-American community was more complex, but largely attributable to poor fathers' inability to support a family.

The Morehouse signers reject the dichotomy of ``culture versus economics" and argue that both factors are at work. Moreover, the signers agree, as Obie Clayton, Executive Director of the Morehouse Research Institute put it, ``We don't have the luxury of a war of words any more….To be effective we must join forces."

With the ``Responsible Father" bill on the table, the Morehouse signers entreat the nation to 1) Recognize the African-American children, like all children, need and deserve their fathers; 2) Put reversing the destructive trend towards father absence at the very top of the African-American and national agenda; and 3) Pass legislation that strengthens fathers and families.

The diverse roster of distinguished signatories, including David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values and Dr. Ronald Mincy of the Ford Foundation, say reversing the trend will require ``aggressive steps to open up greater economic opportunities for African-American men and equally aggressive steps to promote changes in norms and expectations that support marriage and strengthen the father-child bond."

They cite studies showing children raised outside of intact marriages are five times more likely to be poor, twice as likely to drop out of school, two to three times more likely to commit crimes that lead to incarceration, and face an increased risk of psychological, academic, and health problems.

In addition, they urge changes in the criminal justice system that would encourage fathers who are in trouble with the law to re-connect with their children and call on federal and state child support collection agencies to view themselves not as punitive, but as sources of help for fathers in meeting their financial responsibilities.

``As an African-American mother, all I can say is: it's about time," said statement co-author Enola Aird of the Institute for American Values. ``The heartrending crisis of black father absence that African-American children suffer has cultural, economic and spiritual roots. Addressing all of these to strengthen marriage and fatherhood in the Black community should be our most urgent priority."

Other distinguished signers include Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson; University of Pennsylvania Professor Elijah Anderson; former HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan; Boston University economist Glenn C. Loury; University of Pennsylvania Professor and faith-based activist John DiIulio and President Walter E. Massey of Morehouse College. The list includes nationally known reformers in the fatherhood movement such as Jeffrey Johnson of the National Center for Strategic Nonprofit Planning and Community Leadership; Ken Canfield of the National Center for Fathering and Wade Horn of the National Fatherhood Initiative.

About the Morehouse Conference

This project largely stems form conversations that began in 1996 and 1997, involving Obie Clayton of the Morehouse Research Institute, Ron Mincy of the Ford Foundation, David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, and others.

From these discussions, three questions emerged. First what are the best ways to support the growing fatherhood movement in the African American community — a movement that exists largely under the radar screen, relatively ignored by the national media, but which is transforming the lives of many young, poorly educated, unwed fathers? Second, is it time for the nation's prominent African American scholars, and leading experts on the African American family, to come together to assist this movement? And finally is it possible for this movement to make common cause — intellectually, morally, and organizationally — with a broad spectrum of other fatherhood and civic leaders?

The result of these deliberations was the Morehouse conference on African American Fathers, held a Morehouse College in Atlanta on November 4 - 6, 1998, co-sponsored by the Morehouse Research Institute and the Institute for American Values and funded in part by the Ford Foundation.

In the eyes of the sponsors, and for many of the participants, the Morehouse conference was an important moment. The group did not agree on everything, but it did agree unequivocally that African American children deserve strong and positive relationships with their fathers and that reversing the trend of father absence must rise to the top of the agenda for African Americans and for the nation. We agreed that the economic structures, the cultural values, and the private and public sector policies that discourage many Black men from becoming active in their children's lives deman urgent attention.

This Statement is an outgrowth of the Morehouse conference. It includes among its signatories men and women who were a part of the Morehouse conference and others who are part of what is a continuing conversation about how best to respond to the challenge of father absence in the African American community.

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