It is now a truth more or less universally acknowledged that children are better off when they have fathers and when their fathers are actively involved in their lives. But where do we go from there? Should the government be promoting fatherhood, marriage, and two-parent families? Or should it simply get out of the way and stop hindering fathers who want to do right by their children? The debate has pitted fathers' rights activists against advocates for marriage and "responsible fatherhood."
The government's fatherhood programs, an offspring of the Clinton era, are thriving under Bush. One Bush-era innovation is marriage promotion: The government has spent millions on programs to encourage poor people on welfare to get married and to help them develop better "marriage skills," an effort that has drawn criticism both from feminists who worry about women being pressured to stay in abusive marriages and from libertarians less than thrilled by social engineering. More recently, some fathers' rights activists have declared the administration's efforts part of an insidious machine that undermines rather than bolsters family and fatherhood.
The first salvo was fired by Stephen Baskerville, a political science professor at Howard University, in a May column for National Review Online that decried "government as family therapy." The government, Baskerville wrote, actively undermines marriage by allowing no-fault divorce and pursuing "one of the most dishonest and destructive policies ever foisted on the public: child-support enforcement."
In his view, government programs aimed at inculcating "life skills" and improving relationships simply serve to bring even more of the family under state control. "Here we see the culmination of a government perpetual-growth machine that has been building for decades: Destroy the family through welfare and no-fault divorce; then evict and criminalize the fathers; then institutionalize the children as state wards through various 'services' to relieve single mothers."
Just a week later, the National Review sitepublished an acid response from Tom Sylvester, a research associate with the Institute for American Values (co-founded by David Blankenhorn, author of the much-discussed 1995 book Fatherless America). Sylvester depicted Baskerville as an extremist spokesman for a "small but vocal group" of disgruntled divorced fathers, and went on to laud the Bush administration's pro-marriage programs as a much-needed effort to strengthen families and thus ultimately help the cause of limited government. More recently, in October, the MensNewsDaily site has featured a roundtable discussion between marriage advocates and fathers' rights activists, including Baskerville and Sylvester.
The fathers' rights activists, so often dismissed as angry men, make some excellent points—including some aspects of their critique of the "marriage movement" and the "responsible fatherhood" advocates. Blankenhorn's writings, for instance, are based almost entirely on the assumption that the primary cause of fatherlessness is men walking away from their wives and children. He and other conservatives believe that the answer to father absence is for men to embrace their responsibilities and for society to hold them responsible. In Blankenhorn's striking metaphor, "Men do not volunteer for fatherhood as much as they are conscripted into it by the surrounding culture."
In fact, two-thirds of divorces are initiated by wives. This isn't just a matter of who officially files for divorce: As Arizona State University psychologist Sanford Braver reports in his 1999 book Divorced Dads, about two-thirds of the time it's the wife who wants out of the marriage. In many cases, non-custodial fathers find their relationships with their children thwarted by their ex-wives.
To some extent, government policies contribute to the situation. Despite nominally gender-neutral child custody laws, in practice fathers are still at a disadvantage. What's more, the courts and the government are far more interested in enforcing child support than in enforcing non-custodial parents' access to the children.
Some thought-provoking studies, particularly by University of Iowa law professor Margaret Brinig, suggest that women are more willing to end their marriages because they know they are likely to get sole custody of their children. Brinig and other scholars have also found that more frequent joint custody awards correlate with lower divorce rates.
Unfortunately, many fathers' rights activists undermine their cause by resorting to extreme rhetoric. Baskerville, for instance, claims that courts, lawyers, and bureaucrats have a vested interest in promoting divorce and "ripping away" fathers from their children: As he put in on The O'Reilly Factor in October 2000, "the more children they take away from their parents, the more business there is for their courts and for those who are the recipients of their patronage."
When Sylvester pointed out in the MensNewsDaily roundtable that a spouse, not the state, files for divorce, Baskerville's retort was even more extreme: "This is like saying the German state was not involved in the Holocaust because its victims were often turned in by their neighbors."
Baskerville, whose diatribes against the "divorce industry" have appeared not only in conservative publications but in libertarian ones such as Liberty, makes a good case that divorce increases government control over families. Once a couple has split up, the courts become involved in decisions that were previously made between husband and wife: whether to send the children to a private school, what kind of religious training they should get, how much money to spend on their clothing and other expenses—and, no less important, how much time each parent will spend with the children. But is there any way to avoid that?
Baskerville argues that the spouse who elects to leave the marriage—except on clear grounds of "fault," such as adultery, physical violence, or substance abuse—should forfeit child custody, possibly with little or no access to the children. But not every divorce without an officially recognized "fault" is frivolous, as some fathers' rights activists would suggest.
Baskerville's proposal would force many people to choose between losing their children and remaining in an emotionally intolerable marriage. And one can imagine a disaffected spouse waging psychological warfare to push the other to file for divorce, or making false allegations of physical abuse or other "faults."
Yet there is no getting around the fact that the "marriage movement" supports extensive entanglement between state, therapy, and family. Obviously, we're not talking about shotgun marriages arranged by Big Brother. But in a federally funded pilot program in Oklahoma, cited as a model by marriage promoters, workshops that teach communication, conflict resolution, and other marriage skills are virtually mandatory for welfare recipients.
Principles aside (such as the quaint idea that the government shouldn't be micro-engineering people's private lives), it's hard to imagine that this approach could be effective. Even voluntary, individualized marital counseling is far from a surefire way to keep a marriage together. A large workshop that offers one-size-fits-all solutions to people with distinct personalities and problems doesn't hold out much promise.
Besides, low marriage rates and high divorce rates in low-income communities are related to plenty of economic and social factors that have nothing to do with poor communication. While the problem of fatherlessness is real, a federal initiative that throws taxpayer money at untested programs and turns Uncle Sam into a marriage counselor is not a real solution.
In a culture that values personal freedom, there is no real "solution" to the problem of divorce. Yet there are ways to minimize its negative effects, such as creating policies that ensure both parents have a meaningful post-divorce role in the children's lives. Joint custody, the alternative preferred by more moderate fathers' rights advocates, may not be a panacea, but for all its drawbacks, it would accomplish that goal.