Houston Chronicle

March 8, 2000


By PATRICIA IRELAND (president of NOW)

WHO would disagree that in raising children fathers count? Certainly not the National Organization for Women. We've been urging for more than 30 years that fathers take equal responsibility in caring for their children.

But the Fathers Count Act passed by the House of Representatives, and the Responsible Fatherhood bill pending in the Senate would promote marriage as a one-size-fits all solution to poverty and strengthen a movement whose goals include lowering or completely avoiding child-support payments.

The House bill would funnel $140 million or more to nonprofit groups for support services to non-custodial fathers, even though Congress has cut already inadequate funds for similar services to custodial mothers. And the fathers don't even have to be poor to get these benefits, only their kids do. So middle-class fathers can get job training and placement, and other services unavailable to poor mothers who need and would no doubt love to have them.

The United States does indeed have a serious problem when one of four children is living in poverty. But Congress must reject the twisted logic that the best way to take care of poor children is to fund programs for fathers who do not have day-today responsibility for raising their kids and that the cure for poverty is marriage, regardless of family circumstances.

Many women end up in poverty because they are forced to flee abusive husbands or partners. According to a 1999 Taylor Institute report, five major research studies have found that between 20 percent and 30 percent of welfare recipients are experiencing domestic violence. A 1996 institute report cited other studies that concluded that from 50 percent to 71 percent of recipients currently face domestic violence, while an additional 19 percent to 32 percent faced such violence in the past.

Despite this record, Congress is telling poor women that the way out of poverty is a husband. The Fathers Count Act would only fund programs that "promote marriage.'' But pressuring a poor mother to marry - without regard to a man's character or violent behavior - could do more harm than good. Besides, if marriage really did cure poverty, it would not take an act of Congress to promote it.

Ireland, based in Washington, D.C., is president of the National Organization for Women.

With the Fathers Count Act's requirement of promoting marriage, funds would almost certainly be awarded to groups that are part of the serf-described fathers' rights movement, which is no friend to children or women. For example, the National Fatherhood Initiative, which would likely receive $5 million from Congress for a national media campaign, is headed by Wade Horn, a fellow at the ultraconservative Hudson Institute. According to Progressive magazine (Nov. 28, 1999), he advocates "explicit, preferential treatment for marriage in the distribution of discretionary funds such as public housing and Head Start slots." In other words, Horn would punish poor kids who do not live with married parents, whatever the reason.

And dads who want to lower or completely avoid child support payments can visit the Fathers' Rights Coalition Web site, where one article brags about a non-custodial father who owned his own business and earned $400,000 in one year but still managed to reduce his child support payment from $250 to $150 per month. The Fathers' Rights Coalition may also be awarded money if the Fathers Count ACT becomes law.

With these pending bills, Congress seems to be saying not just that fathers count, but that they count more than mothers and more than children. Congress needs to make an honest commitment to eradicating poverty, but the current fatherhood fad will do little to help impoverished children. Instead of looking back to the 1950s and longing for the days of the fictional Ozzie and Harriet, Congress would do well to look for answers that will work in the future.