Stop taking low-income fathers’ money away from their children; help fathers form better relationships with children and mothers; don’t make legal marriage more important than good parenting. Finally, the federal government’s approach to the role of family structure in the lives of low-income children is starting to look more reasonable and realistic.
In a conference call last week, two Special Assistants to the President revealed the administration’s new strategy for TANF grants. The $150 million annual allocation for Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood will be split evenly between the two program types ($75M for marriage and $75M for fatherhood) in next year’s budget as well as this year’s current funding. There will be a new competition for these funds, and previous grantees will have to demonstrate past success to be considered for future grants. Marriage programs can’t get fatherhood funds just to keep doing marriage stuff (or vice versa).
This amounts to a permanent 25% reduction in marriage promotion and 33% increase in fatherhood funding. On the call, Martha Coven, Special Assistant to the President for Mobility and Opportunity, described it as a welcome increase for fatherhood. She also said the administration had decided to follow this funding pattern because it was acceptable to Congress, rather than dig in to fight for the much bigger state-level competition for innovative marriage, fatherhood and family programming which it had proposed last year.
The call further revealed the administration’s much bigger focus on fatherhood, in the form of a package of improvements to the child support system worth $2.8 billion over 10 years (i.e., averaging $280 million annually). The world of low-income child support collection is maddening for everyone, not least because it was originally designed as a cost recovery plan for welfare agencies. This design concept causes friction between mothers and fathers, fathers and children, families and agencies, courts and jails, and even between the federal and state governments. Much of the proposed federal funding will be used to pay the states to modernize and humanize their systems. Not my area of expertise, but sounds like a really good idea!
Now here’s the less good news – the line between fatherhood programs and marriage promotion is not as bright as you might hope. Here’s how federal law describes fatherhood programming (italics added):
1) Activities to promote marriage or sustain marriage through activities such as counseling, mentoring, disseminating information about the benefits of marriage and 2-parent involvement for children, enhancing relationship skills, education regarding how to control aggressive behavior, disseminating information on the causes of domestic violence and child abuse, marriage preparation programs, premarital counseling, marital inventories, skills-based marriage education, financial planning seminars, including improving a family’s ability to effectively manage family business affairs by means such as education, counseling, or mentoring on matters related to family finances, including household management, budgeting, banking, and handling of financial transactions and home maintenance, and divorce education and reduction programs, including mediation and counseling.
2) Activities to promote responsible parenting through activities such as counseling, mentoring, and mediation, disseminating information about good parenting practices, skills-based parenting education, encouraging child support payments, and other methods.
3) Activities to foster economic stability by helping fathers improve their economic status by providing activities such as work first services, job search, job training, subsidized employment, job retention, job enhancement, and encouraging education, including career-advancing education, dissemination of employment materials, coordination with existing employment services such as welfare-to-work programs, referrals to local employment training initiatives, and other methods.
4) Activities to promote responsible fatherhood that are conducted through a contract with a nationally recognized, nonprofit fatherhood promotion organization, such as the development, promotion, and distribution of a media campaign to encourage the appropriate involvement of parents in the life of any child and specifically the issue of responsible fatherhood, and the development of a national clearinghouse to assist States and communities in efforts to promote and support marriage and responsible fatherhood.
So, we can enjoy a modest celebration but it’s not time to kick back and relax. We’re pursuing two goals in 2011: first, to influence the ongoing use of TANF funds so that programs are less rigidly focused on marriage and more helpful to people in diverse relationships; second, to influence the reauthorization of TANF so that marriage promotion will not be stated as its primary purpose for the next five years.