Father knows best
The Obama administration’s new Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative
Beginning with a speech on Father’s Day Sunday, Obama launched a new initiative on responsible fatherhood. This was a campaign issue for then-candidate Obama, and remains one of the social issues with which he shares common ground with conservatives, who frequently emphasize the role of responsible parenting and accountable fatherhood in helping to create the conditions for future economic success of low-income children.
In an email from the White House:
My own father left my family when I was two years old. I was raised by a heroic mother and wonderful grandparents who provided the support, discipline and love that helped me get to where I am today, but I still felt the weight of that absence throughout my childhood. It’s something that leaves a hole no government can fill. Studies show that children who grow up without their fathers around are more likely to drop out of high school, go to jail, or become teen fathers themselves.
Ira Stoll, blogging at FutureofCapitalism.com, blasts the site and the Initiative:
President Obama interrupted my Father’s Day with an e-mail announcing the launch of “The President’s Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative” and an associated Web site, Fatherhood.gov, which honestly I could have mistaken for an elaborate prank undertaken by some libertarian group trying to make the point that the next thing you know, Big Government and President Obama are going to try to insert themselves into the father-son or father-daughter relationship.
[. . .]
I don’t blame President Obama alone for this. President George W. Bush was pushing this fatherhood stuff through his Health and Human Services Department and its official, Wade Horn, as well. And look, maybe there is a role for the government in helping people be better fathers. But as a father myself, I find these “tips” to be maddening. The current federal government can barely do the tasks that it is assigned in the Constitution, such as keeping us safe from foreign invaders and regulating the value of money. I’d be happy if the government could just win Iraq and Afghanistan, secure the border, live roughly within its means, and make sure the beaches of Florida aren’t covered with petroleum products. If the government is going to beyond that and assign itself, unbidden, the all-new task of improving the nation’s fathers, it’s going to have to do better than telling people to filter their water, mute the television commercials, use more expensive lightbulbs, and check the Halloween candy for tampering, if President Obama wants to avoid spawning more of the very cynicism he went to Washington vowing to defeat.
Beyond Stoll’s vitriol is a valid point about the initiative. We tend not to view oversight of the parent-child relationship as an appropriate role for the federal government. This is a tension of which Obama seems aware:
Now of course, we can’t legislate fatherhood – we can’t force anyone to love a child. But what we CAN do is send a clear message to our fathers that there is no excuse for failing to meet their obligations. What we can do is make it easier for fathers who make responsible choices and harder for those who avoid them.
There are really several issues here. First, is issuing guidance on responsible parenthood the purview of the federal government, or is it an encroachment on individual liberty? Second, is the family a distinct moral sphere, one governed by different values than the public sphere (governed by law)? Third, does focusing on this issue trade-off with other important problems (like the oil spill)?
I’ll stay away from issue three but, based on the White House email and his remarks, Obama seems to appreciate the first and second issues acutely. He acknowledges that something like love (arguably a good that belongs to the private sphere, rather than the public) cannot be legislated, but notes the practical outcomes of absentee fathers that have major impacts on the rest of society. He seems to support a middle ground in which the government creates incentives for what it considers responsible parenting.
But even this balancing act is susceptible to attack from both sides. Both the libertarian or “family-sphere advocate” (to put it inelegantly) would say that incentives/disincentives are just a subtle form of prohibition and coercion–otherwise the system of incentives wouldn’t really work.
At the other end of the spectrum, some would say this doesn’t go far enough. The family sphere is really just a way to disguise and shield insidious oppression. Sexism and misogyny hid behind the family sphere during the 20th century, and now it’s neglect of children that does the same. They say we really should just legislate family relationships we know play a critical role in child development. Children, after all, are largely helpless to surmount these forces.
The latter view is unlikely to resonate with most Americans, but neither does the former. Most people likely embrace Obama’s compromise: we know these things matter, and we should support good decisions by parents.
Whether the Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative provides that guidance, well, Stoll has some nice send-ups. Worth a good laugh at least.