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Are low-income, unwed dads 'deadbeat' or dead broke?

November 7, 1999
Web posted at: 1:20 PM EST (1820 GMT)

NEW YORK (AP) -- For decades, they have been the scapegoats of America's welfare morass: young inner-city men who impregnate their girlfriends, then drift away while taxpayers foot the bills for single-mother families.

In the current upheaval of welfare reform, however, these low-income, unwed fathers are getting a fresh look, in some cases accompanied by a trace of empathy.

"The stereotype is that these dads don't care," said Jose Adorno, program director at a New York City anti-poverty agency called STRIVE. "They do care. They're just scared."

The reason for the new focus on "welfare dads" is simple -- and mercenary. State and federal authorities are targeting them as a crucial source of financial support for the hundreds of thousands of single mothers being forced off welfare.

Traditionally, poor unwed fathers who fail to pay child support have been branded as "deadbeat dads," incurring as much public scorn and judicial wrath as wealthier divorced men who shirk court-ordered support.

Many hamstrung by lack of income

Attitudes are now beginning to shift, as some policymakers realize that tougher tactics to maximize child support drive many well-intentioned fathers underground. Social workers and researchers suggest many welfare dads want to support their kids but are hamstrung by lack of income.

In Congress, there is bipartisan backing for the proposed Fathers Count Act, which would provide $230 million for programs aimed at improving welfare dads' earning power and parenting skills.

"There's an increasing amount of sympathy for low-income fathers who are trying to do the right thing but are caught under a huge burden of debt," said Nick Gwyn, a Democratic staff member with the Human Resources subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.

"We're trying to acknowledge the fact that some parents aren't so much deadbeat as dead broke."

Three million families on welfare

Though welfare rolls have been cut in half nationwide since 1994, about 3 million families remain on welfare. There are an estimated 1 million fathers of welfare children -- most of them black or Hispanic -- with low income and education levels limiting their ability to pay support.

In the past, few programs were directed at these men, but so-called fatherhood programs are now sprouting nationwide at agencies like STRIVE. Adorno doesn't minimize the challenges his clients face.

"We're not trying to sugarcoat anything," he says. "The financial aspect of this is not going to be easy for some of these young fathers. They need to step outside into the sunlight and take responsibility for the mistakes they've made."

Michael Hurd, from the Bronx, says he is ready to take that step. His 6-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son live with their mother, who helped state officials identify Hurd as the father, and thus made him a target for a child-support order.

Hurd, 24, says some of his peers would rather go to jail than pay court-ordered support, but he is willing to try -- provided STRIVE can help him get a decent-paying job.

"It's going to be tough," he says. "But you've got to do it. Otherwise, they mess with your driver's license, your credit."

Hurd will likely have to direct at least 25 percent of his income toward child support; he says he can do this, and pay his own bills, if he gets a job paying $9 or more an hour.

The incentive, Hurd says, is the prospect of closer ties with his children, whom he now visits every other week.

"For birthdays, Christmas, I'm always trying to be there," he says. "I want to instill things in them. I want them to be calling me up to say, 'I drew a picture today. I got an A on a test."'

Hurd made occasional gifts to his children in the past but had no full-time job that would have enabled him to make regular, court-ordered support payments. Adorno contends that many unwed fathers would start paying child support if they were assured of decent jobs and realistic payment orders.

"When you cut through all the bull, it's about helping the child," says Adorno. "If we need to pay attention to the fathers to do that, so be it."

Some conservative groups oppose any government support for unwed fathers, arguing that such programs demean marriage. Some women's groups worry that any new assistance for fathers will reduce support for mothers.

But the National Conference of State Legislatures, which generally seeks bipartisan approaches to divisive problems, issued a report this year asserting that many unwed fathers deserve help in supporting their children.

"Some conservative legislators really had their eyes opened," says Dana Reichart, the report's author. "Once they read it, the light bulb goes on: 'We can't apply this rubber-stamp, one-size-fits-all approach."'

"The child-support system was designed for middle-class families," Reichart says. "It was never designed to meet the needs of welfare families, especially with welfare reform and parents being asked to go to work."

Beyond traditional job-training

The programs surfacing across the country go beyond traditional job-training. STRIVE and other agencies offer "team parenting" courses, teaching unmarried mothers and fathers how to cooperate for the sake of their children.

"We're not trying to walk anyone down the aisle," Adorno says. "If that happens, great. But what we're after is to get people to work toward a common goal, and that's the sustenance of the child."

Ronald Mincy, a Ford Foundation official, oversees a multimillion-dollar initiative called Partners for Fragile Families that seeks to turn unwed fathers into responsible parents. He is excited by some recent studies indicating welfare dads are more involved with their children than generally believed.

"The notion that mothers are raising these kids alone is just not being supported by the data," Mincy says. He cites one study suggesting fathers in 62 percent of welfare families lived with the mother or visited weekly.

Herbie Rosa, 23, is one of those fathers. Unmarried and unemployed, he lives in the Bronx with the mother of his two children and has signed up for STRIVE's job-training and fatherhood programs.

"STRIVE will bring to my attention the flaws and the faults that I have," Rosa says. "I'll do anything to be a better dad."

The success of welfare-dad initiatives will depend in part on state courts, which will be asked to show greater flexibility toward fathers burdened with support orders they cannot afford.

Elaine Sorensen of the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., says the current system can be punitive, often forcing poor fathers to pay a larger share of their income in child support than higher-income fathers.

Unpaid support can mushroom into unmanageable debt, says Sorensen. She suggests that courts consider an amnesty on arrears as long as poor fathers take jobs that enable them to meet current obligations.

Mincy and Reichart say the time is ripe for major initiatives aimed at these welfare dads. An estimated $7 billion remains in unspent funding for welfare reform.

Copyright 1999 The Associated Press.

© 1999 Cable News Network.