The Failure of Fatherhood Policy

David Blankenhorn is considered by many to be the leading intellectual authority on the crisis of fatherless children. His book Fatherless America is justly acknowledged as an authoritative statement of “the most harmful demographic trend of this generation.” Its influence on government policy has been immeasurable through the “responsible fatherhood” programs of the Clinton administration and many state and local governments during the 1990’s. It continues to influence the marriage promotion schemes now being advocated by the Bush administration.

So it is worth listening when Mr. Blankenhorn laments that “everywhere one looks today for political and social commentary, seriousness is on the wane, intemperance is the favored style, and the barking dogs have taken over the conversation.” Yet Mr. Blankenhorn himself may not be immune from his own strictures concerning civil public debate.

In his web log, Blankenhorn launches an attack, not on the substance of any published facts or arguments but on an organization that supports scholarly research with which he disagrees, the respected Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society. Blankenhorn seems to believe the Howard Center is answerable to him for the scholars they support (in this case the scholar is me) and calls them on the carpet accordingly. While I hesitate to be drawn into discussions of other people’s motives, I believe I know the reason for this behavior.

At the outset of his otherwise admirable book, Blankenhorn makes a vitally important but unsubstantiated assertion that lies at the heart of his claim to be an authority on the fatherhood crisis. “Never before in this country have so many children been voluntarily abandoned by their fathers,” he writes (p. 1). “Today, the principal cause of fatherlessness is paternal choice…the rising rate of paternal abandonment” (pp. 22–23).

Blankenhorn cites no source and evinces no evidence for these assertions. Aside from the question of how he can be privy to the volition of other people, this statement represents an odd abdication of the scholar’s critical function. He seems to take it at face value that because children do not live with their fathers, therefore their fathers have abandoned them. Yet this does not necessarily follow.

In fact, Blankenhorn’s statements have been called into serious question by in-depth investigations on precisely this subject. Research published in refereed journals by respected scholars like Sanford Braver, Margaret Brinig, Douglas Allen, Ilene Wolcott, Jody Hughes, Judith Wallerstein, and Sandra Blakeslee, and corroborated by the professional experience of authors as ideologically diverse as Constance Ahrons, Shere Hite, David Chambers, Robert Seidenberg, and Rosalind Miles, indicates that paternal abandonment cannot account for widespread fatherlessness.

After years of defamation, the very parents Mr. Blankenhorn excoriates for abandoning their children are protesting that they have done no such thing. Their protestations are now being heard in reputable current affairs publications and even peer-reviewed academic journals. The last issue of the refereed Independent Review, asks “Is There Really a Fatherhood Crisis?” To my knowledge, Mr. Blankenhorn has not responded.

The stakes here are not trivial. Blankenhorn’s error goes to the core of our understanding of the fatherlessness phenomenon and by extension of the larger family crisis whose manifestations now appear on the front pages. It is difficult to exaggerate the impact of this misconception in justifying a host of ineffective and counterproductive policies during the last two presidential administrations and by numerous local governments. His undocumented allegation has misled the uninformed and armed the unscrupulous with a weapon to garner political capital by whipping up hysteria against innocent parents, in the process exacerbating the plight of fatherless children.

The untruth that widespread fatherlessness is caused primarily by paternal abandonment disguises the uncontested truth that millions of innocent children are kept in forced separation from legally unimpeachable fathers by court orders that their fathers may breach only on pain of incarceration. The misconception has also has been used to justify ever-more repressive police measures and violations of constitutional rights against ever-greater numbers of law-abiding citizens under the guise of collecting child support. Worse, these measures actually contribute to fatherless homes by serving as a subsidy on divorce and by incarcerating parents for circumstances that are beyond their control.

If Blankenhorn is correct about paternal abandonment, then we indeed have a law enforcement problem of massive proportions, against which we must commit vastly more resources for police, courts, prosecutors, and prisons, since the huge expansion of the penal apparatus already implemented over the last decade in response to alleged paternal abandonment has made almost no dent in the problem. On the other hand, if the scholars cited above are correct, then such an expansion of police power will achieve nothing but to increase still further the number of fatherless children. For it is precisely this expansion of government power which is largely responsible for the problem in the first place.

It is no exaggeration to say that this question could determine the future of family policy in America. Indeed, it may not be far-fetched to suggest that this question carries implications far beyond family policy, since – and it is Blankenhorn’s own achievement to have established this – fatherlessness is at the root of most larger social pathologies, including poverty, violent crime, substance abuse, and truancy.

The societal ills Blankenhorn links to fatherlessness have driven the government-growth policies of both the left and the right. They have justified the exponential expansion of both the welfare state and the penal apparatus.

If these problems stem from a spontaneous social phenomenon – fathers abandoning their children – then it is difficult to challenge the need for programs to combat them. If, by contrast, the option becomes available that we might control most of our social problems by curtailing the power of government to separate children from their fathers, then most programs expanding government power become superfluous. Anti-poverty programs, expanding law-enforcement powers, the war on drugs, federal education programs – all are rationalized by “crises” whose roots lay in broken homes and exiled fathers.

It hardly need be added that armies of scholars who dedicate their careers and justify their funding by studying ever-more arcane aspects of these phenomena also become largely unnecessary.

After more than a decade of government programs predicated on this fallacy, the fatherhood crisis continues to grow progressively worse. Rather than continuing to heap blame for our public policy failures on the backs of scapegoats, it may be time to re-evaluate the central misconception upon which they are based.

I challenge Mr. Blankenhorn to confront and refute the facts published by any writer who has questioned his assertion rather than trying to silence others by undercutting the platform from which they speak. If he can show us where we are wrong, then perhaps we can begin to work together to confront the problem, and he will have earned a place as a leader in this vexing problem.

On the other hand, if Mr. Blankenhorn cannot make good his assertion, then it is time for him to acknowledge his error and retract it.

September 3, 2004