A few statistics even hint that a turnaround is already in motion. The Census Bureau reports that between 1996 and 2002, the number of black children living in two‑parent families increased for the first time since the 1960s, from 35 to 39 percent. Black teen pregnancy rates have plummeted 32 percent in the last 15 years, well surpassing the decline among white and Hispanic adolescents. Thanks to the 1996 welfare reform bill, black mothers have been joining the workforce in record numbers and making enough money to pull more of their children out of poverty than we've seen since anyone's been keeping track of these things.
And the men ‑ the much needed husbands and fathers? You can see a glimmer of hope here, too. People are talking about fathers ‑ a lot. The New York Times Magazine captured the emerging dadism in Jason DeParle's recent profile of a 32 year‑old former crack dealer, pimp, and convict trying to go straight, delivering pizzas by night, taking care of his two‑year‑old son by day.
But the grim fact is that bringing a reliable dad into the home of the 80 percent or so of inner-city children growing up with a single mother is a task of such psychological and sociological complexity as to rival democracy‑building in Iraq. Pundits point to the staggering rates of black male unemployment and incarceration as the major reason that black men don't get married. Others cite the poisonous relations between the sexes that too often lead to domestic violence. What is little understood is that all of these ‑ single fatherhood, domestic abuse, unemployment, crime, and incarceration ‑ are in effect the same problem. They are all part of a destructive pattern of drift, of a tendency for men to stumble through life rather than try to tame it, a drift whose inevitable consequence is the deadbeat dad and fatherless children.
But let's start with the good news, because it is truly worth cheering. There's a fatherhood awakening under way in the inner city. According to many observers, more and more young fathers are "taking responsibility" or "stepping up" for their children. Now that post‑welfare reform mothers are getting up early for the morning shift at a downtown nursing home or hotel kitchen, the men are often out there walking their kids to school, taking them to the park or to after‑school programs. "You never used to see this," says D. J. Andrews, a communications consultant who has been working with inner-city fathers for five years. "People used to say, 'That's a woman's job." Columbia social work professor Ron Mincy, an expert on the inner-city family, also sees a "sea change" in hip‑hop culture: it's "no longer cool" to father a child and wave from a distance occasionally. In fact, some hip‑hop icons are going all Ozzie, crooning their devotion and life lessons for their sons. "You a blessin' and I'll always guide you," sings rapper Ray Benzino, co‑owner of Source Magazine and organizer of the publication's 2002 event "to reveal the nurturing side of rap artists as fathers and mentors."
Not that this celebration of fatherhood is universal in the ghetto. Andrews says that when he explains the poverty and psychological problems that fatherless children suffer at disproportionate rates, some young men say, "I never thought about that." Others listen suspiciously and counter, "I didn't have a father, and I came out okay" ‑ that is, until Andrews points out that that's a prison record in their file, not an honor roll certificate.
But indifference of this sort is going out of style, as ghetto dwellers have begun to take stock ‑ in their high schools, housing projects, and streets ‑ of the disastrous results of the previous decades of father absence. For the hip‑hop generation that grew up at the height of the crack epidemic, when so many of their elders vanished into underclass hell, rage at deadbeat dads has become a kind of primal scream. In 2001, BET.com encouraged visitors to post Father's Day greetings. Organizers assumed that they would see a Hallmark fest of "I love you" or "I miss you." Instead they got a "venting session": "I hate you," "To all my deadbeat dads out there, I just want to say, thanks for nothing," and "That bastard forgot that I even existed," contributors railed.
Father loss is a recurrent theme in contemporary black music, chronicled by some of the baddest brothers: "What's buried under there?/Was a kid torn apart once his pop disappeared?/I went to school, got good grades, could behave when I wanted! But I had demons deep inside," raps Jay‑Z, who was raised in Brooklyn's notorious Marcy Projects and usually sings of "hos and bitches." "Now all the teachers couldn't reach me/And my mom couldn't beat me/Hard enough to match the pain of my pops not seeing me." Not everyone reacts to father loss with thuggish rage, of course ‑ as witness Luther Vandross's sentimental Grammy Award‑winning "Dance with My Father": "Then up the stairs he would carry me/And I knew for sure I was loved . . . . How I'd love, love, love/To dance with my father again."
Fatherhood is also getting a boost from a social‑services industry that had long been in dad-denial. For close to half a century, the welfare establishment viewed fatherlessness as poverty's unavoidable collateral damage. Federal and local governments spent billions on Mom's parenting and work skills, day care and Head Start, food stamps, after‑school programs, and health care; but they didn't have much to say about ‑ or to - Dad. Starting in the mid‑1990s, reams of research began to convince even the most skeptical activists and policymakers of the importance of fathers and the two‑parent family to children's life chances, and attention turned toward the missing dad. Today, programs that try to impress young single fathers with their importance in their kids' lives are spreading across the social services world, with support from the federal and state governments. "There's a lot of buzz about this right now," D. J. Andrews says.
Can the buzz evolve into something more than talk? The answer may strike skeptics as too pat: not unless these fathers can become husbands. But take a close look at the tenuous, improvisational, and usually polygamous relationships that replace marriage in the inner city. They're a breeding ground for confusion, resentment, jealousy, and rage of the sort that swamps the best paternal intentions.
For a good example of the shaky promise of the black fatherhood programs that do not include marriage, consider Tyrell, a soft‑spoken, dreadlocked 24‑year‑old I interviewed at a child support‑work program at America Works, an employment agency for hard‑to‑place workers. "My generation grew up without fathers," Tyrell says. "I wanted my father ‑ but the hell with that dude." He is determined to do better for his own 19‑month‑old son, spending hours each day with the boy and often joining up with friends who are also doing the dad thing. "My friends, all our kids hang together. I'm Uncle Tyrell." Not that the young father is content to be a friendly companion. With a smile he mentions that, when the child is acting up, the boy's mother turns to Tyrell to say, "Talk to your son!"
But even though Tyrell seems to be doing much of what fathers are supposed to do ‑ providing discipline, sharing child care, and taking at least some financial responsibility ‑ and even though he is determined to be the father he never had, his good intentions are slender reeds in the treacherous drift of street life. As he mentions casually, he no longer lives with his son's mother; he has a new girlfriend, and their baby is due in January.
Tyrell's haphazard approach to what social scientists call "family creation" is nothing unusual. People who work closely with the men‑who‑would‑be‑fathers describe it this way: a man and woman ‑ or perhaps a boy and girl of 15 and 16‑are having a sexual relationship. They're careful at first, but soon get careless. (The rate of contraceptive use at first intercourse has gone up among teen girls from 65 percent in 1988 to 76 percent in 1995, but after that, a third of these girls use contraception erratically.) Sure enough, she's pregnant. In some cases, he disappears on her, but more likely these days he recognizes, like Tyrell, that "he's got responsibilities." He goes to the prenatal appointments with her at the neighborhood clinic; he's there in the hospital when the baby arrives healthy and bawling, family members clap him on the back, and he's thinking, "Well, I may not have expected this, but it's pretty cool." It's what Leon Henry, head of the Maryland Regional Practitioner's Network for Fathers and Families, calls "'the happy pappy syndrome': the baby comes, and it seems like everything's wonderful."
Of course, it's not. The Accidental Father is trying to build a family without a blueprint. For one thing, he has no idea what, aside from bringing over some Huggies and Similac, he is supposed to do. After all, there weren't any fathers around when he was a child. Some men say that they grew up not even being sure what to call these ghostly figures in their lives‑Dad? Pops? George or Fred?‑or what fathers say to their kids beyond "How ya doin'?" or "How's school?" "To me, fathers were somewhat of a [cont'd]luxury, an 'extra' parent of sorts," journalist Darrell Dawsey, who grew up in a single‑parent household in inner-city Detroit, explains in his memoir Living to Tell About It. 'My father had left when I was an infant, gone down that same road of abandonment most of my other friends' fathers had taken. His idea of parenting was to fly me every few years to wherever he was living at the time and, in the guise of offering wise counsel, harangue me about the way my mother was raising me." When Dawsey's own daughter was born, he was bewildered. "I loved my daughter, but I didn't know how or why I was supposed to be there for her. I just didn't know."
But by far the biggest obstacle for the Accidental Father ‑ and fanning his uncertainty ‑ is his fragile, vaguely defined relationship with his baby's mother and her family. The problems don't always appear right away. At first, many couples enjoy a surge of hope and good intentions. The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study ‑ following a birth cohort of nearly 4,000 children of unmarried, low‑income, urban parents, as well as 1,200 married couples over five years ‑ has found that some two‑thirds of inner-city single women were still romantically involved with their babies' fathers at the time of birth. When asked, a majority of these couples say they are considering marriage, and many refer to each other as "husbands" and "wives."
Still, many of these relationships will end before the child can sit up in a high chair; most will be over before he can tie his shoes. Research conducted for Head Start found that while at birth over 80 percent of mothers and fathers are romantically involved, four years later that number has declined to 20 percent. The problem is most acute among African Americans; Fragile Families researchers found that Hispanics are two and a half times more likely to marry the year following nonmarital birth than African-American parents are.
Outsiders may find these facts troubling; young men like Tyrell do not. Having grown up in the crack‑era inner city, few have ever seen a long‑term partnership between a man and a woman raising children together. And without such a model, they are unlikely to see it as a goal worth pursuing. I asked Tyrell what he thought about the idea of having children with one woman with whom you stayed for good. He gave me a look of gentle condescension. "In this day and age, I don't see that happening…You just do the best you can." What message would he give his own child about starting a family? "I would tell my son, 'Don't have a child until you're ready to have a child.'"
Several teens interviewed by Jason DeParle in his New York Times Magazine story scoff at the boring sameness of marriage, even while they yearn for fathers. "I need some little me's ‑ children," one 16‑year‑old told DeParle, but, he continued, "I just can't see myself being with one woman." As another teen explained, "That'd be too plain ‑ like you have to see the same woman every day." A young man with this attitude does not spend time "looking for Ms. Right" or "working on a relationship," or any of the other rituals of middle‑class courtship. Like Tyrell, first he is with one woman, then he is with another; in all likelihood, there will be more in the future. Sex happens. And so do babies.
It's not at all uncommon to meet poor men who have left behind a winding trail of exes and their unanticipated progeny. One man I spoke with has five children by two women; another, apologizing for his shoddy birth control practices by explaining that he "likes it raw," has seven children by five women; he was 15 when the first was born. When asked about his offspring, an edgy Haitian, who owes the State of New York child support of $35,000, starts counting slowly on his fingers. He stops at four, but he doesn't seem to be joking; it's as if he's never thought of the products of his many affairs as a single group that could be labeled "my children."
Sometimes the couple is philosophical about their relationship's end. "When your woman wanna go, she's gonna go," shrugs Frank, the father of a two‑year‑old boy born to a mother he had lived with for five years. An amiable man, whose hardware‑weight bling enhances his considerable bulk, Frank says that he either sees his child or phones him every day, despite his loss of interest in the boy's mother. "I don't hate my baby's mama. She's got a interest in somebody. I got a interest in somebody .... No use you being miserable, her being miserable. The child gonna be miserable. My son right now still has a smile on his face. Daddy's gonna live his life." After all, he had "no problem" with the two fathers of the two children his ex already had when he moved in with her. "You know this woman. You know she picked you. She ain't gonna pick no creep."
A lot of ghetto women voice similarly friendly feelings toward the fathers of their children and are sympathetic to their efforts to come through for them. Though their child‑support relationships are usually informal ‑ unless they are on welfare, in which case the courts set the father's contribution ‑ the men come by when they can with money, new clothes, and Christmas presents.
But usually, bitterness creeps into the relationship. The mother has special cause for resentment; she is raising a child either on her own or in a relationship with only vaguely defined obligations. One day, the father arrives at the apartment and walks into what some veteran dads refer to as "mama drama" ‑ a litany of demands and accusations, some no doubt deserved: he is late, he ain't show up last week when he said he would, he hasn't delivered the money he promised for the high chair. His girlfriend's mother, understandably mistrustful of the cause of the wailing newcomer to an already chaotic apartment, adds an unfriendly greeting of her own: this is "grandma drama." "He's 18, she's 16. He drops by to see the baby. He's got some Pampers and formula," explains Neil Tift, director of training for the National Practitioners Network for Fathers and Families. "Grandma doesn't respect him. No matter how much he wants to see the child, how much abuse is he going to take?" "Many black men say to me that the sisters are just too much work," says Nick Chiles, co‑author with his wife, Denene Millner, of numerous books on the relationships of African‑American men and women. Once men find themselves [cont'd] getting in tangles with women they think of as girlfriends, not as wives, it's no wonder.
Not all men accept the game of musical families as inevitable. Some try to live up to a dimly remembered ideal of a husband‑like partner. What are the chances they can succeed? They've stumbled into fatherhood with a woman they had not intentionally chosen to be the mother of their child; they face a future with someone with whom they share no hopes, aspirations, or trust. Ben, a handsome, serious 37‑year‑old dressed in a neat, blue plaid shirt, whom I also spoke with at America Works, is a poignant example of how decency and determination can be no match for the nearly insurmountable task that these men have set for themselves.
Seven years ago, Ben had what he saw as a casual affair with a Dominican woman he didn't know all that well. When she needed a place to stay, he gave her his key, and one thing led to another. "I didn't expect her to get pregnant. The relationship she and I had ‑ we had no business having children," he says sternly. Staying with her after his son was born, he tried to transform his Accidental Family into something solid and permanent. After all, he had been taught to be responsible: "My mother told me, when you make a baby, you raise a baby." And the wound of his own fatherlessness was still raw; he says he suffered "temper disorders" and problems in school because he needed the man who was never there. He wanted to give his son a childhood he never had. "I get him toys," he tells me. "When I grew up I didn't have any toys."
Ben's good intentions were not enough. Though "I begged her not to have any more children," soon she was pregnant again, with a girl this time. They broke up, got back together, broke up again, and had yet another girl. So now Ben had fathered three children with a woman he refers to as his wife, though he never married her and no longer lives with her, and though he sees her as an obstacle to his children's future. He wants the kids to go to Boys' Club or karate; she rarely takes them anywhere. He wants them to succeed in school; she shows little interest even in learning to speak English or helping the kids get ahead. I ask him again, why did he keep having children with a woman he didn't care for, much less love, and whom he viewed as a poor mother? "There's nothing wrong with wanting to be a father," he answers. "Anyone raised decently would want a kid. I know about being a man."
This theme ‑ what it means to be a man - recurs insistently in the musings of poor black men. It has a long history, of course, stretching back to slavery and Jim Crow, when whites called black men "boy." And in the post‑segregation era, the indifference of the social‑services establishment, policymakers, academics, and the media toward black men as fathers and husbands further undermined their sense of masculinity. Worse, enabled by welfare, women let the men know that they could manage without them; a poor black man's own children saw him as the "extra" parent, as Darrell Dawsey put it. With no role as a man of the family, he became a baffling, often threatening figure, especially to himself. In the past 15 years, books with titles like Speak My Name: Black Men on Masculinity; Are We Not Men?; and A Question of Manhood have poured off the presses. Even boys are grappling with the subject: 15year‑old Brian Johnson told Dawsey, "That's manhood. Unless you can support your family and respect a Black woman, you are not a man."
But supporting a family that you never chose and that you are not really part of is less a path to manhood than to still more confusion and bitterness. Men often complain that they feel used by their children's mothers, valued only for their not‑so‑deep pockets. "She doesn't see me as a man; she sees me as an ATM," Ben complains. And not living with the children, fathers have no idea whether the mother's demands make sense. She says the kids need new jackets: should he believe her? She's lied before. One man I spoke with has a child who was conceived two weeks after he met the mother four years ago. "This accident happened," he explained, and ever since she got pregnant, she's been demanding money. "With her, it's 'F you.' It's to the point that, every time we talk, it's 'I don't want to talk. Do you got some money? That's all I want.'"
In the improvised ghetto family, the mistrust goes both ways. Patricia, a young black woman who projects an odd mixture of warmth and street toughness, lives with her two‑year‑old son and his father, a man she alternately refers to as her fiancé and husband, who has also fathered an older daughter he no longer sees. To protect herself and her child, Patricia hides any money she earns. ‑‑You gotta play broke," she explains. "I work for me and my son, not for my husband." Despite their seeming intimacy ‑ she says they are talking about marriage ‑ the couple is nothing like a parental unit. "I get scraps," she says of the money her "husband" gives her. "He sees it as 'he's helping me.' " I ask whether they would ever think of pooling their money, and she guffaws. "He thinks that's 'the white way' "‑that, if a man gives a woman the check, "he's an idiot." In fact, any time there's a problem and she wants to talk things over, he says, "You think you're white. Just leave it alone." She concludes about her possible husband, father of her little boy, "I think the fool is just like that. He's never going to change."
Adding to the mistrust and further threatening to isolate a father from his children, is the moment when the new woman, often pregnant, enters this domestic standoff. Maybe the new girlfriend is worried that he'll favor his children by his old girlfriend. As one mother of two explained, "If a man has more than one child, the first woman gets whatever she needs, and the second child gets what's left." Maybe the mother still carries a torch for her child's father and is jealous of his new woman. Or maybe she's worried that her child will "get scraps." Another America Works client, Randy, says that his three children's mother was so convinced that his new girlfriend was getting more than she was that she has turned their children against him. "Your father's no good, no motherfuckin' good!" she screams at them. Now, his nine‑year-old calls him and curses him out, joining the spiteful "you're no good" chorus. Randy insists that he is providing child support. But, like many men, he complains that the money goes through the courts to the family; a father doesn't get to give it to his children with his own hands. If the mother is really determined to undermine her ex, she can (as in this case) tell their kids that he is a deadbeat.
Behind these struggles lurks the ever-present suspicion that men are lying, cheating, "low‑down dogs." "Men weren't to be trusted," writes journalist Michael Datcher, author of Raising Fences: A Black Man's Love Story. "Even when our mothers didn't speak these words, their tired lives whispered the message." And hip‑hoppers like "I‑don't‑love'em;‑I‑fuck‑'em" Jay‑Z gleefully celebrate men's treachery. According to a number of observers, wariness about cheating men is the biggest reason that inner-city women don't want to marry. And no wonder. The Sexual Organization of the City, a recent University of Chicago study of sexual relations in various Chicago neighborhoods, finds "transactional" sexual relationships, infidelity, and domestic violence on the rise throughout the city, but things are worst in Southtown, the pseudonymous African‑American neighborhood. Sixty percent of Southtown men interviewed had "concurrent partners" ‑ as did 45 percent of women. The sociologist‑authors conclude that polygamy is Southtown's "dominant structure."
Worse, the study's authors argue, infidelity often leads to violence. Close to 60 percent of Southtown respondents reported that at least one partner in their relationships engaged in physical violence in the
previous year. The black writer bell hooks says that she often hears teenagers say, "There is no such thing as love." In a relationship dystopia like Southtown, they may be right.
This social and emotional reality casts real doubt on the prevailing theory about why so few black children are born to married parents. According to this thesis, there just aren't enough stably employed men in the ghetto for women to marry. First suggested by Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, the theory had it that when "work disappears" from the inner city ‑ Wilson was referring specifically to the decline of manufacturing jobs ‑ men do not marry, since they can't support families. According to Wilson, employed, single black fathers aged 18 to 21 in Chicago's inner city are 18 times more likely to marry eventually than their jobless counterparts. More recently, pundits have updated Wilson's theory to take into account the many black men in prison. "Is there any mystery to the disintegration of the black family," Cynthia Tucker wrote not long ago in the Atlanta Journal‑Constitution, "with so many young black fathers locked up?" Following Wilson, a recent paper from the Fragile Families Study supports what might be called "the marriage market theory." The researchers concluded that the reason that unwed black couples were less likely to marry than whites or Hispanics after having a baby was that there was an "undersupply" of employed African‑American men.
The marriage market thesis makes sense as far as it goes: far too many poor black men seem like a risk not worth taking for marriage-minded women. As Northeastern University's Labor Market Studies found, in 2002 one of every four black men was idle all year long, a much greater number than whites and Hispanics ‑ and this does not even include homeless or incarcerated men. There are only 46 employed African‑American males per 100 females in the 20 cities that the Fragile Families Study observes, in contrast to 80 men with jobs in the Hispanic and white groups. Worse still, the justice Department reports that close to 13 percent of black men are in jail, compared with under 2 percent of white men. Another estimate has it that 30 percent of non‑institutionalized black men have criminal records. More black males get their GED in prison than graduate from high school. And the future does not look much better: 60 percent of incarcerated youth aged 18 and under are African‑American.
But the marriage market thesis, by emphasizing marriage as an economic relationship, understates the centrality of cultural norms about love and the way that those norms organize young people's lives. Most American men take it for granted that not just marriage, but the pursuit of long‑lasting love, is an essential life project. They spend a good deal of their adolescence and early adulthood trying to find "the one." And when they think that they have found that person, they have a predictable script in mind: they imagine and plan a life with her, one that usually involves children; they assume that both of them will be faithful; they take public vows to sanctify their shared life venture. Things far too often these days don't work out the way they're supposed to, but the very existence of an inherited script endows life with meaning and orders the otherwise disconnected existence of individual men, women, and children.
But poor black men have no script to guide their deeper emotions and aspirations. Neither searching for, nor expecting, durable companionship with the opposite sex, they settle for becoming Accidental Parents and Families. When co‑authors Denene Millner and Nick Chiles speak to African‑American audiences about their own marriage, Millner says that they are greeted with cries of cynicism: "You two don't count! You're Ozzie and Harriet in blackface! You're the Cosby show! It's a fantasy!"
Reduced to conflicted, tenuous relationships with women, poor black men are more likely to express sentiments like trust, loyalty, and lasting affection for their male friends. "With some friends, we've been friends ever since we were little. When he had trouble, I am there; when I am in trouble, he's there," one incarcerated 18year‑old from Omaha told Dawsey. "[I]f I had trouble with my girlfriend and we end up breaking up, I can always get another girl, but.. . it's harder to break away from your friends." (This sentiment may explain why so many men view their relationships with their sons as more important than those with their daughters; they are used to relying on "the brothers.") But the angry cries of the ghetto's fatherless children prove that this solution to the human need for lasting bonds solves little. As Orlando Patterson has written in his essay "Broken Bloodlines: Gender Relations and the Crisis of Marriages and Families Among African‑Americans," blacks are "the most unpartnered and isolated group of people in America and quite possibly in the world."
Michael Datcher's Raising Fences perfectly captures the starkness of the contrast between the love and marriage that are central to the mainstream life project, and the consequences of their absence in the ghetto. As a child during the 1970s, Datcher was bused from a poor, single‑mother home in Long Beach, California, to a middle‑class white school. He visited a classmate's middle‑class home and was floored. "It was a feeling of stability, comfort, and safety that touched me," he recalls. "I wanted that feeling in my life." He was similarly astonished when his friend introduced him to his father. "My parental introductions had always begun and ended with the mama because the mamas were the daddies too," he says. "Not in this house. They had real fathers here .... I literally could not speak."
Transformed, Datcher becomes "obsessed" with "picket‑fence dreams." When he finishes college and goes to graduate school, his life is on track, until he has a casual affair with a woman who becomes pregnant. Datcher is distraught at having a child with a woman he does not love, just "like every other nigga." But after another ugly twist in the story ‑ it turns out that the child is not his‑he is able to resume his search and find a woman with whom he believes he can share the "stability, comfort and safety that touched" him as a boy. Love, marriage, planning for the future: they are inextricably bound.
Then where do jobs fit into this script? The marriage market thesis has it that men who cannot find decent work in a job market that treats them so shabbily will inevitably seem inadequate marriage partners. But this argument confuses cause and correlation. What is clear from listening to men like Tyrell is that indifference toward marriage grows out of the same psychological soil as the inability to earn a decent living. Men do not get married because they have a steady job; they get married because they are the kind of person who can get and keep a steady job. As Datcher's story shows, the very task of looking for "the right woman" means projecting yourself into the future and taking a mindful approach to life.
One of the most striking things about talking to poor inner‑city men is their sense of drift; life is something that happens to them. I asked several men where they would like to see themselves in ten years; all of them gave me a puzzled, I‑never‑really‑thought‑about‑it look. Both marriage and vocation are part of the project that is the deliberate pursuit of a meaningful and connected life. To put it a little differently, to marry and to earn a steady living are to try to master life and shape it into a coherent narrative.
Ballasting this sense of drift is a hugely difficult cultural task that will take more than a generation and needs the participation of the whole culture, from Bill Cosby and the president down to the local school and church. We've known for some time that, on average, kids are better off in every way when they grow up with their married parents. The task now is to spread the word that marriage is also best for the many, many poor, black men who long to be fathers.