Often left out of discussions about improving the living conditions of low-income families in America is the important role that fathers can play. To celebrate this Father's Day, representatives from Catholic Charities USA visited with the men of a Chicago Catholic Charities-sponsored support group to hear their stories and learn from them which public policy changes might best support them.
On hand for the event was Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA. He said CCUSA hopes to begin a national dialogue on strategies for supporting parents of struggling families to devise new programs and policies aimed at helping low-income fathers assume "their rightful place in the family."
In wide cultural circulation now, he said, is the myth of low-income fathers who are disinterested in the welfare of their children. "We have to change that myth," said Snyder, "and show that the reality is that fathers of children on welfare have the same dreams that all the rest of us do, and we need to give them the tools and the skills they need to really be committed to their children.
The fathers who chatted with Snyder and other Catholic Charities executives ranged in age from 16 to 60. Some were expecting their first child this summer, several were already grandparents with grown children.
Virtually of all the men said the best support they could have in fulfilling their role is the chance to find a "decent" job that paid a living wage Many of the men said they worked multiple jobs in order to support their families and as a result had no time to be with their children. Toward that goal they argued for better job training and educational opportunities for working people.
They also said that family skills development and support programs such as the Catholic Charities Chicago group they had joined should be more widely available and that information about such programs should be better known in low-income communities. Many said that this particular program had proved crucial in teaching them skills to be better partners to their wives and better parents to their children. Many frankly said the program had probably saved their marriages.
Another major problem at least one-third of the fathers said they confronted was the inability to escape from their pasts. The men said their criminal records essentially cut them off from job and housing opportunities. "I've been home since '03," Tiawan, a teen father said, "and I must have filled out thousands of [job] applications and I never get called back or hear an explanation."
"You know, everyone's monitoring the bad thing you did in the past," another father said, "but no one is monitoring all the good things you are doing [to try and get back on track]." The men said if there were easier ways to clear their records after serving their time, they could more readily integrate into society and be the support they hope to be to their children.
The men noted the impact of single-parent households on their communities, acknowledging that many of the young men growing up in their African-American neighborhoods often have no father figures in their lives. That lack has had a corrosive effect not just on individual families but entire communities. "I can honestly say," Hebron, a father and grandfather, said, "that I wasn't fathered by one person, I was fathered by the entire community, and I believe that's what we need coming up today. Whether it be my child or someone else's child, we all have a role to play."
Hebron later added that a great support to fathers in his community would be freedom from fear. In his neighborhood gang violence means that he worries every time his young children leave home. To escape that threat and the poor performance of his local elementary school, he sends his children to a magnet school far from their community. That means a 2 1/2 hour commute for him each morning and night. "It really bothers me that I cannot send [my children] to a school in my neighborhood that's within walking distance."
The emphasis this week on fathers is part of CCUSA's broader effort to reduce overall poverty in America by 50 percent by 2020.
"There's no question that children are better off when both parents are involved in their lives, but this is all too often not the case," said Snyder. "Nearly 14 million children under age of 15 live with a single mother, and millions of these children have fallen into poverty." According to CCUSA, children who grow up with both parents are more likely to finish school, become self-sufficient and have a healthier lifestyle than those from single-parent homes. Greater involvement by fathers in their children's lives promotes positive physical, social, emotional, and mental development.
Snyder said, "Let's mark this Father's Day as the beginning of a new commitment in this country to finding more ways to help low-income fathers, strengthen families, and reduce many of the challenges that cause children to fall into poverty."
Catholic Charities USA is urging Congress to pass a comprehensive legislative agenda for improving support to low-income fathers that focuses on policies that help keep families intact by providing:
• More employment and training opportunities for low-income men.
• Stronger support for marriage and two-parent families.
• Equitable health and mental health services to low-income mothers and fathers.
• Improvement in work supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).
• Livable wages for working families.
• Comprehensive support for mothers and fathers who are disconnected from their children due to incarceration.
• Reform to the child support system to encourage the presence of fathers in the lives of their children.
• Expansion of opportunities for youth aging out of foster care.
• Additional support to encourage work and economic opportunity among low-income parents.
In addition to its advocacy in Congress, Catholic Charities USA also plans to engage local Catholic Charities agencies and the communities they serve in joining in this dialogue, as well as help them create, share, or improve their existing programs that support dads and families, and create more awareness in the wider community on the importance of this issue and what they can do to support fathers in reducing poverty.—Kevin Clarke