As the age of limited benefits descends on welfare families, policymakers have shown a keen new interest in absent fathers, especially the undereducated, underemployed, often street-wise men, who go months, if not years, without seeing their children.
Aided by a recent infusion of government and foundation money, dozens of programs have sprung up to raise the earnings of these fathers and increase the amount of child support they pay.But researchers released a long-awaited study this week of the program for fathers that bore the hopes of a previous round of reform, and it mostly adds to the literature of disappointment that surrounds initiatives for poor minority men.
The program Parents' Fair Share failed to increase the earnings or employment of non-custodial fathers it served. It did show a small increase in the average amount of child support the fathers paid - about $4.20 a month, an increase of 6 percent. But even that finding came with a footnote, because it failed a test of statistical significance.
The program tried to increase the fathers' earnings and their child support payments and strengthen their family ties. Most of the fathers in the program, which offered a mix of training and counseling services, were black or Hispanic men and had not finished high school.
The study was conducted by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a nonprofit organization based in New York City. The report's general conclusions had long circulated among policymakers, and the lessons have already been sharply debated among the warring camps shaping a new generation of programs for low-income fathers.
In a recent telephone interview, Fred Doolittle, a vice president of the research corporation, said that not all of the findings were discouraging. While the increase in child support payments was small, he said, "many people didn't expect any child support increase."
Doolittle also cited anecdotal evidence that counseling sessions with "peer support groups" led fathers to become more involved with their children. "That was a very encouraging surprise," he said. Many new programs emphasize these peer support groups.
Still, even supporters of fatherhood programs concede their work remains cut out for them. "It's disappointing that we didn't see these guys running to the employment offices," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., R-Fla., who is promoting a bill that would spend $2 billion on new programs for poor fathers. Shaw would direct the money toward programs with a greater emphasis on marriage and give some of it to religious groups, hoping "they can get through to some of these harder cases that the bureaucrats fail at."
Operating from 1994 to 1997 with government and foundation money, Parents' Fair Share grew out of a 1988 welfare law. It tried to build better relationships between child support agencies and poor fathers whose children were often on welfare. It operated in seven cities: Dayton, Ohio; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Los Angeles; Memphis; Springfield, Mass., and Trenton, N.J.
In exchange for their cooperation, the program promised fathers training and counseling services, with three explicit goals: to raise the fathers' earnings, increase child support payments and strengthen their interaction with their children.
But the study notes that the program typically suffered from a cumbersome administration, split between child support agencies that stressed collection and nonprofit groups that stressed services. In some places, there was a shortage of training programs that would admit the fathers.
In the program, almost half of the men had failed to graduate from high school and nearly 70 percent had criminal records. About 80 percent of the fathers referred to the program by local child support agencies were black or Hispanic.
The program's effect on child support came in two ways. First, just by forcing child support agencies to review cases they typically ignored, it identified some fathers able to pay, perhaps through previously unreported jobs. The extra case reviews raised the average child support payment by 19 percent, to a monthly average of $61.
The second effect was found among the fathers actually referred to the program. Their payments increased an average of 6 percent to a monthly total of about $75. The increases were most pronounced in Dayton, Ohio, where payments rose 55 percent, to $60 a month, and in Grand Rapids, Mich., where they rose 20 percent to $91 a month.
The payment amount actually fell in Memphis; Trenton, N.J., and Springfield, Mass., though the declines were not statistically significant. Overall, the percentage of fathers who made any payment in an 18-month period rose to 73 percent from 69 percent.
The lessons for the future?
Wendell Primus, an analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit research group, wants more and better services. "There were some sites that did better, and that gives me some cause for optimism," he said.
But some conservatives said the results underscore the limits of traditional social services. "The promotion of marriage is the ideal," said Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, a nonprofit group that promotes responsible fatherhood. He acknowledged that the "restoration of marriage" might also be difficult to achieve.