Correcting Obama on Father’s Day

In this Washington Times column published yesterday, fathers’ rights advocates Glenn Sacks and Robert Franklin, of Fathers and Families, criticize Barack Obama’s Father’s Day comments.  They make some excellent points:

Mr. Obama marked Father’s Day 2008 [by] saying fathers have “abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men” – a view he voiced many times during the presidential campaign.

Mr. Obama is correct that involved fathers – even divorced or separated ones with little income – provide their children with substantial benefits. A recent Boston College study of low-income minority families found that when nonresident fathers are involved in their adolescent children’s lives, the incidence of substance abuse, violence, crime and truancy decreases markedly. The study’s lead author, professor Rebekah Levine Coley, says the study found involved nonresident fathers to be “an important protective factor for adolescents.” Yet Mr. Obama makes a serious error by placing all blame for family breakdown on men.

Indeed; of course, the view that fatherlessness is almost entirely the result of men abandoning their responsibilities is quite prevalent on both sides of the political spectrum.  (In this regard, there is very little different between Barack Obama’s rhetoric and that of George W. Bush.)  Sacks and Franklin cite interesting new research showing that even never-married young fathers in the inner city — so often trotted out as the very image of the feckless male sowing his wild oats — often have a strong commitment to their children, and that their bonds to those children are often broken by the mother moving on to a new partner and shutting out the father.  And they are right that “it often is mothers, not fathers, who create fatherlessness.”

But at one point, the column seems to make the leap from “often” to “always,” resulting in a picture skewed in the other direction.

Sachs and Franklin write:

Moreover, women are increasingly having children with no intention of ever having a father in their kids’ lives. Newly released data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that 40 percent of children born in the United States are born out of wedlock, a 26 percent increase since just five years ago.

But the figure they quote does not illustrate the proposition in the first sentence.  The NCHS data show that in about half of those cases, the mother is in a steady relationship with the father (sometimes, living together).  Some of these parents later marry (it would be interesting to get data on that).  Moreover, surely at least some of the unwed births that make up that 40 percent figure are, in fact, due to paternal abandonment.  Let’s not counter one false stereotype with another.

That said, I will add that I think Fathers & Families does great work, and their approach is generally very balanced, and steers laudably clear of the woman-bashing rhetoric that some fathers’ rights groups regrettably lapse into.  But it never hurts to be vigilant against the temptation of bias in a good cause.  Edited to add:  Or against careless wording which may create the impression of bias.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Correcting Obama on Father’s Day

  1. There’s no unfair “bias” or “false stereotype” in our paragraph about out of wedlock births. In fact, in your own recent column “Single mothers and the baby boom” you made the exact same point that we do above–there’s an increase in, as you put it, “mothers who choose to go solo.”

    Of course some of couples who have a child out of wedlock don’t marry because of paternal abandonment–hell, in the very next sentence we wrote “there are too many fathers who do not come through for their children.”

    Of course some of these couples get married later. Of course some of these couples intended to marry or remain together but didn’t. Of course some of these pregnancies were accidental. But a rise in the out-of-wedlock birth rate to 40%–combined with the well-documented increase in “single motherhood by choice”–does more than adequately support our statement that “women are increasingly having children with no intention of ever having a father in their kids’ lives.”

  2. Hi Glenn! I was going to send you a link, but am glad you saw this already.

    Unfortunately, the way this paragraph is worded, it does suggest that all or most single mothers are having children with the intent of having no father in the picture. Generally, when you make an assertion in the first line of a paragraph and then cite a statistic in the second, I would assume that the statistic is meant to illustrate the assertion. At the very least, I think that a qualifier of some kind should have been added — like, “While many of those women are in relationships with the fathers and eventually marry, a growing number embrace solo motherhood by design.”

    I’m sure this is careless wording and not intentional bias, but I think that on a hotly contested issue like this it’s important to not give a wrong impression.

    Other than that… keep up the good work!

  3. Pingback: At family violence conference in LA « The Y Files

  4. Nick S

    Cathy, the problem with your quibble is that this type of argument can be cut both ways.

    It is no doubt true that not all the 40% or so of children born out of wedlock are to women who simply don’t want the father in the picture. But it is equally true that not all the other 60% of women are necessarily devoted wives and mothers either. How many of these women might dump their partners at the drop of a hat or whenever it is expedient to do so? (after all, women initiate most divorces).

    So while in some cases the 40% figure may over-estimate female perfidy, there are probably just as many cases where the figure underestimates the number of women who have little loyalty to their current spouse.

    The 40% figure, while not perfect, is probably a realistic barometer of current attitudes about the superfluousness of men as husbands and fathers.

  5. Sorry, but I think we’re splitting hairs now. A woman who gets divorced, even for reasons that many of us would consider frivolous, is not a woman who “has a child with no intention of ever having a father in the picture,” and that’s what the statement was about (with an explicit linkage to the 40% rate of single motherhood). Moreover, my objection was specifically to the linkage between the 40% single motherhood rate and the statement about women having children without intending to have a father in the picture.

    Incidentally, I know women who very strongly believe in the importance of fathers but are extremely wary of the fathers’ rights movement because they believe it’s extensively populated by misogynists. Comments like “female perfidy” aren’t particularly helpful in correcting this impression.

  6. Nick S

    Cathy, having considered the issue a little more I do agree that there is a significant difference between children being born to a single woman and children being born to unmarried parents who may be in some kind of a relationship.

    I can understand how comments like that may come across as misogynistic. But the fact that men have little scope for criticising women without being labeled misogynistic says more about the extent to which men have been demonised in the current climate. I, for one, am not going to tremble in fear at the prospect that someone might label me that way.

    To suggest that women often treat men as superfluous or disposable in relation to family formation hardly implies contempt for women, any more than suggesting that men are often only interested in younger attractive women necessarily implies contempt for men. All it amounts to is a recognition that evolution and natural selection made both sexes imperfect, and is often unkind to both sexes.

    The problem in society today is not that either sex is naturally better or worse in that regard. It is simply that the current legal and political framework has compounded the biological disadvantages men face, while ameliorating most of those that women face.

  7. Nick S

    Incidentally, when I was slightly younger, I also assumed that the men’s/father’s rights movement was just a bunch of the usual suspects. Until my early 20’s I was something of a feminist dissident or feminist-lite in my outlook on gender issues.

    It was only when I started looking into these things more fully that I began to realise just how much evidence of male disadvantage had been suppressed and evidence of female disadvantage had been confected. I also realised just how much I had internalised the male-bashing prevalent in society at the time. I liken it to a form of Stockholm Syndrome.

    For me, it’s a case of been there, done that, bought the T-shirt!

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