'The Father Factor' In Kids' Lives

The Atlantic and Deseret News collaborated on a series looking at how fathers affect family stability and the well-being of children. Tell Me More hears from the editor of "The Father Factor."

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. President Obama's new My Brother's Keeper initiative, which aims to help black and Latino boys succeed, has reopened a national conversation about the role that fathers can play in the lives of their children, especially their sons. In a White House conference introducing the program, the president talked about how his father's absence affected him as a child and how the presence of a good father can make all the difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We can reform our criminal justice system to ensure that it's not infected with bias, but nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son's life.

MARTIN: Now while all this was going on, a new media collaboration has been offering a fresh perspective on fatherhood as well. The Atlantic magazine and the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah have joined forces to report a series called the "Father Factor." Paul Edwards is editor of the Deseret News, and he's with us now from Salt Lake City. Welcome to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.

PAUL EDWARDS: Thank you for having me with you today.

MARTIN: I wanted to mention that we did invite someone from the Atlantic to join us, but we just couldn't work it out from a scheduling perspective. And so we do hope to hear from them as the series proceeds. You know, these are both serious news organizations, but the Deseret News is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, kind of the Mormon church. And I think people might think of it as being particularly focused on church affairs. And I think maybe people think of The Atlantic as having kind of a different focus. So I was wondering if - you know, how this collaboration started.

EDWARDS: We were just very interested in trying to put a face on the 24 million children in this country that grow up in homes without their biological fathers. We were really looking initially at family stability as a concern. So as we sat down with some experts, we actually convened a little brainstorming session at the offices of The Atlantic in Washington, D.C. And we brought in Kathryn Edin, a real specialist on family issues from Johns Hopkins University, Brad Wilcox, who's an expert on marriage concerns from University of Virginia. As we went out to report the stories on family stability, as we talked to experts, the issue of fathers just kept coming back as a primary concern for the well-being of so many children in our country.

MARTIN: Talk to me if you would about some of the - I don't know - misconceptions or ideas that emerge over the course of this reporting about the so-called, you know, absent father.

EDWARDS: We may have had conceptions about deadbeat dads who are in and out of a romantic relationship and want to abandon their responsibilities as fathers. And it's a much more complex story than that, Michel. What we find is that fathers in some tough economic situations are very much desirous of being involved with their children on an emotional level but finding a hard way to find traction within the family given different kinds of societal expectations about their role as providers within the family. A lot of social programs see them primarily as a wallet for the family rather than an emotional caretaker in the situation. So a lot of social programs attempt to replace that income support in different ways.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about a new reporting series called the "Father Factor." Our guest is Paul Edwards, editor of the Deseret News. This is a jointly reported project along with The Atlantic news organization. Now one of the other interesting things from your reporting is that a lot of children actually have multiple father figures but not necessarily their own father in their lives. And I wanted to ask, you know, about the causes and effects of that.

EDWARDS: Well - and the series actually began telling the story of Jordan Ott. By the time he's about 8 years old, he's already had two stepfathers. He's had four half-siblings, three stepsiblings and one full sister in his life. That in itself creates a complexity and an instability that makes it hard to find the kind of security that young men really need in order to thrive emotionally and economically.

MARTIN: Is it all negative, though? I mean, you know, one could think of situations where actually alternate father figures provide other clues about how to be that the biological father would not.

EDWARDS: That's right, Michel. And what we found is that - and again another person who appears in the stories, Arvie Burgos, 17-year-old kid coming out of foster care. He finds real great support through a Big Brother program. And so, you know, just being able to have some strong male role models that take a real emotional and deep concern in the lives of these young people can make a significant difference.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, I just want to play a short clip from one of the contributors to our program, a law professor named Paul Butler, where he talks about somebody who taught him how to fish - a friend of his mother's who taught him how to fish. And he was not his father. He was not in the home. But he learned a lot of life lessons, you know, from this person.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

PAUL BUTLER: And the thing was he was just this ordinary dude. He didn't - you know, he was a carpenter. He didn't teach me how to apply to Yale or make me want to be a lawyer. What he did was listen to a little kid.

MARTIN: What's kind of the overall impression that you got from these multiple father figures? Is it a net plus or a net negative? Or did it depend a lot on how chaotic the situation was overall or whether there was kind of a strong, positive figure with, you know, positive values?

EDWARDS: So children that grow up in a situation where there is a parade of romantic partners for their parents coming through the household, that's a very tough situation. And so that instability is such a major concern.

MARTIN: Did you draw any conclusions in this series about what kinds of things make a difference in keeping fathers in the home or close to their families and what kinds of things don't? Or are we not there yet?

EDWARDS: Well, I do think we find some perverse incentives in the system of social support that we have. So with the idea that only one parent can benefit from certain kinds of assistance programs like SNAP and so on, you actually create an incentive where people that are truly on that edge in those really tough margins might find the following situation maximizes income. And that's cohabiting with a boyfriend who's not biologically related to any of the children in the household. Over and over again, we found people very encouraged by what the earned-income tax credit can do to incentivize work and make a difference in providing economic stability in tough situations. And, you know, thoughtful expansion of earned-income tax credit was something that many experts who look at this looked on favorably.

MARTIN: You know, when you were brainstorming, you know, about this issue with your colleagues, the whole issue of fatherhood and the role that fathers play kept coming up, you know, over and over again. This reminds me of the comment that the president made at the launch of this initiative. And I just want to - do you want to play it? OK, let's just play it. And I'd like to hear your reaction to it. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: I didn't have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn't necessarily realize it at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn't always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.

EDWARDS: Referring to one of the characters in the story, Jordan Ott, he brings up this very point about the anger that he has. And so you ask, well, isn't this just what adolescents do? But what the research shows is that adolescents with involved fathers are far less likely to experiment with drugs and that there are really positive correlations between the presence of a dad in a child's life and qualities like empathy, impulse control, ability to respond effectively to ambiguous situations. This translates into academic success, positive health outcomes, even physical safety. And so that statement from the president when he said this, just days after this series was launched, I mean, he hit on a number of the key findings there.

MARTIN: You know, the president's focus was very much on boys of color. But what about white boys? I mean, I think that there are instances of fatherlessness and father absence in white households as well. And I was wondering if that was a part of your reporting and if you see similar effects?

EDWARDS: The reporting really picked up mostly on the issues of class more than race. We do see in lower-income and lower-educated communities a significant problem. But this really doesn't have racial lines any more, Michel. What we see is that more than half of children being born to women under 30 in the United States are born outside of wedlock. Now that doesn't mean that there isn't a father figure there. But what we know about those cohabiting situations is that it's much less stable in terms of keeping the father in the picture.

MARTIN: Where are you going to go next with this series?

EDWARDS: Well, there's a lot that we at the Deseret News want to pursue on this. I mentioned the emphasis on things like the earned-income tax credit. We just really didn't give that enough attention. I think another concern that we saw that deserves some more reporting is looking at the role of civil society in lower-income neighborhoods. There really seems to have been a retreat of some of the important civil society institutions. Even churches in some of those areas can play a very positive role in terms of providing good role models for families as they're forming and trying to connect.

MARTIN: What did you hear from fathers about what they need and whether they feel their voices are heard when it comes to policy, the way families operate these days? Did you - what did they say?

EDWARDS: One of the close stories followed is a gentleman named Frandy, who lives just outside of Boston. And, you know, here's a young man who's trying very hard in a lot of ways to be a dad in a situation - he actually becomes - he's an ex-felon with huge child support requirements, struggling to find employment. And you just get a sense of very hard to get a fresh start when a young man launches into life with so many of these challenges at the outset. You know, I encourage readers to take a look at Frandy's story. I mean, he's not the ideal person, but you get the sense that there's some real structural challenges just working against this young man as he's really trying to step up to the plate and provide for a young family.

MARTIN: Paul Edwards is the editor of the Deseret News. And we caught up with him in Salt Lake City, Utah. Thanks so much for joining us.

EDWARDS: Michel, thank you for letting me join you today.

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