Marriage Policies, Poor Economy Shift Funders’ Priorities

Bill Alexander
June 1, 2003

Is the effort to reach out to young, unmarried fathers being trampled by the Bush administration’s drive to get them married?
Some national fatherhood leaders think so – and one of them called a news conference in Washington last month to charge that promising fatherhood programs run by his group and scores of community-based organizations are at risk of shutting down.

Held up as the central exhibit in the claim by Jeffery Johnson, head of the National Center for Strategic Nonprofit Planning and Community Leadership, is the Partners for Fragile Families (PFF) project, which is shutting down three years after being launched to increase self-sufficiency and parental responsibility among young, unmarried fathers.

The 10-city demonstration project was a swan song of sorts for its main private benefactor, the Ford Foundation, which has folded its fathers and families unit, as well as a leftover from the Clinton administration.
“On the federal government side, there is simply a different view on how best to reduce child poverty and work with families,” Johnson said. “Organizations whose missions don’t align themselves with these different views will more than likely not receive federal funding.”

That view, said David Siegel, deputy director of the Office of Child Support Enforcement within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is “to encourage the formation of healthy marriages.”

Experiment’s Dilemma

During the Clinton administration, PFF was hailed as a landmark idea, with more than $15 million committed by the federal child support enforcement office, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Ford and Charles Stewart Mott foundations, the Lilly Endowment and smaller foundations near the 10 sites chosen for the three-year demonstration project. The effort emphasized job training and employment of unmarried fathers, ages 16 to 25.

Although scheduled to launch in December 1998, the demonstration was pushed back to 2001, after President George W. Bush took office, to allow federal child support enforcement rules to be waived (so the money could go to specific cities rather than be distributed statewide.)

The federal funds amounted to $10 million, evenly distributed among sites in Baltimore; Boston; Chicago; Denver; Indianapolis; Los Angeles; Minneapolis; New York; Racine, Wis.; and West Chester, Pa. Ford’s share of the contributions (more than $5 million) passed through Johnson’s national center, which distributed the funds to the PFF sites.

The goals included helping never-married fathers “assume legal, financial and emotional responsibility for their children,” and fostering “family-friendly polices” and cooperative agreements between service providers and public agencies.

In typical fashion, project organizers hoped that after the demonstration money ran out, the efforts would show enough promise for foundation and federal funding to continue.

What happened instead was also typical of demonstration projects: “Once the experiment ends,” said Johnson, “the feds and the private foundations take their money in pursuit of another experiment.”

Ron Mincy, a former Ford Foundation senior program officer who is now a professor of social policy at Columbia University, credited the Bush administration with letting the program continue even though it was started by the Clinton White House. But the new White House is clearly headed in a different direction with fatherhood funding.

For instance, the Fathers Count Act – which has been bouncing around Congress since 1999, and originally included a focus on employment programs – has morphed into a fatherhood bill emphasizing provisions that would promote marriage among young parents. Later called the Promoting and Supporting Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Marriage Act, and endorsed by the Bush administration, the bill has been folded into the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) reauthorization legislation (HR 4). That legislation is languishing in the Senate Finance Committee.

“The marriage provisions in the fatherhood amendments have hijacked the TANF reauthorization,” said Vicki Turetski, senior staff attorney for the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). “The big pot of money [$1.4 billion] can be used for marriage promotion in education and media campaigns and employment programs specifically tied to marriage promotion, while the little pot [$25 million] provides relationship skills and home management services, but does not provide job services.”

The prime debate now, Turetski said, involves whether government should promote marriage. That fits Mincy’s observation that fatherhood bills “tend to become a moving target for discussing everything but the fatherhood problem.”

Debating Marriage

Charles Ballard, president of the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization – a sometime rival of Johnson’s center for funds – called the Bush policy on marriage promotion “putting the cart before the horse.”

A father’s “attitude and behavior must be changed first with a job, education and health services that prepare the man to psychologically believe in himself and nurture his children,” Ballard said. “The adults may not be compatible” enough to get married, “and it’s not for the government to decide that issue.”

“All research shows that children perform better in a married household,” Siegel countered.

He said the Bush administration has made “a substantial commitment to fatherhood programs,” asking Congress for $20 million for “new and ongoing efforts. There are and will be resources out there.” Among the efforts Siegel cites are Special Improvement Projects grants.

Wallace McLaughlin, president of the Fathers and Families Resource Center in Indianapolis, said his organization was rejected for one of those grants because “I wouldn’t project under the ‘outcomes’ portion how many couples I’d think would be married at the end of the grant. They wanted to show success by how many people got married.”

“You need a balance of marriage preparation – not promotion – and job programs and health services for these efforts to work,” said McLaughlin, whose center provides an array of services such as job readiness classes, GED preparation and parenting seminars.

Also advocating the marriage focus is Wade Horn, former president of the National Fatherhood Initiative and now the assistant secretary for Children and Families within HHS.

As result of that focus and the drying up of foundation resources, Johnson said, “We’re being left in the lurch.”

In an effort to justify more federal money for programs with less restrictive marriage provisions – which would broaden the range of participating groups – the national center last month released “initial data” on the 1,316 enrollees at the PFF sites before last December. The conclusions: After enrolling in the programs, some 30 percent had legally established paternity for their children (which is necessary to set child support obligations), 27 percent had entered into child support agreements, and 48 percent had found full- or part-time jobs.

Abrupt Endings

But with the PFF winding down, there is no clear national financial resource for such efforts.

Last year the Ford Foundation shut down its fatherhood and families unit, primarily because of the recession. Ford’s assets shrunk from $14.7 billion in 2000 to $9.3 billion in 2002.

In Los Angeles, the PFF program run by the nonprofit Bienvenidos Family Services ended “abruptly” in February, said agency Director Barbara Kappos. “There was no closure,” she said. “Simply a letter from child support enforcement saying there would be no more payments and the liaison person had been reassigned. We’re still seeing program participants, although we’re no longer being paid.”

Two sites – Minneapolis and New York City – plan to operate through the end of the year; the others were to close down at various times this year.

In Indianapolis, McLaughlin said that with the locally based Lilly Endowment stepping in with some money, he’s been able to keep his PFF afloat – but expects to shut it this month. “When the money runs out,” he said “I’ll be experiencing frustration, because I’ll have to let go half my staff” of 12.