Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Investing in Fatherhood and Family-Strengthening Pays Off

Josh Good


January 15, 2010

Barring unforeseen circumstances, at a future cost of $1 trillion, Congress is expected to pass the largest expansion to the public safety net in more than four decades, making healthcare available to 30 million previously uninsured Americans. Given lower tax revenues and two recent recovery bills totaling $1.5 trillion, Congressional leaders will need to carefully weigh their spending priorities in the year ahead. How should policymakers prioritize decisions—especially in funding social services that aim to help needy Americans get back on track?

It is true enough that many of our entitlement programs have expanded beyond their initial scope. Medicare now supports longer-living Americans, and our food stamps program directly serves one in eight Americans—and an astonishing one in four children, costing taxpayers $60 billion per year (see “Living on Nothing But Food Stamps,” The New York Times, 1/3/10). These startling observations should compel policymakers to think about long-term realities, not just speedily treating immediate needs.

Two excellent examples of long-range public investment, which would cost only a small fraction of the nation’s $16.5 billion annual Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, are a pair of pilot programs aimed at “improving fatherhood supports, marriage skills and parenting relationships,” especially for low-income men and women. The Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Marriage initiatives, which annually provide grants respectively totaling $50 million and $100 million, fund programs run mostly by grassroots community-based organizations, including faith-based programs of the kind President Obama pledged to support during his election campaign.

Since 2006, 122 healthy marriage and healthy relationships programs and 94 fatherhood programs have offered marriage and fatherhood skills, communications support, conflict resolution tools, and work-life balance techniques to thousands of men and women in classes and workshops. Participant feedback shows high satisfaction rates and levels of learning, especially among socio-economically struggling populations. Yet, without reauthorization by Congress, both initiatives will expire in 2011.

When public officials think through whether or not to re-invest in long-term human services like these, another important distinction about programs in faith-based and community organizations (FBCOs) should be kept in mind: many, if not most, FBCO initiatives draw heavily on volunteers to provide services, providing a kind of cost-benefit “uptick” that is easy to overlook. Moreover, many FBCOs employ staff members whose own sense of mission often motivates them to work well beyond a standard 40-hour work week—as the current Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood programs attest.

Though additional evaluation is needed, elected officials would be wise to fund long-term family support programs that can help address the realities that lie beneath the surface of joblessness, drug abuse and crime. These initiatives address critical “human needs,” combating the sad realities that two in three children in the African-American community grow up without a dad in the home, and more than half of all marriages end in divorce. These realities have dire public costs and negative consequences for children, who without healthy relationships are considerably more likely to abuse drugs, drop out of school, experience depression, and be arrested.

Government is not omni-competent to provide aid to poor families, and we should welcome, not fear, opportunities for grassroots FBCOs to serve at-risk fathers and families. Though these preventative human service investments are long-term in nature, their anticipated dividends are well worth the public costs.

—Josh Good
    Manager, ICF International

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”