White House Fatherhood Initiative Garners Praise, Scrutiny

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President Obama announced Monday the second phase of his initiative to promote responsible fatherhood. But does the White House effort address the social and economic issues that may be keeping men from being good dads? Guest host Tony Cox talks with Joshua Dubois, Director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, that helps direct the President's fatherhood initiative. Also joining the conversation: Reverend Kip Banks of the East Washington Heights Baptist Church and Political Science Professor and blogger Lester Spence.

TONY COX, host:

We turn now to our weekly conversation about parenting. This week: fatherhood. President Obama spoke about the role of fathers and what it means to be a good dad yesterday, the day after Father's Day, at a community art center in Washington.

President BARACK OBAMA: Our children don't need us to be superheroes. They don't need us to be perfect. They do need us to be present. They need us to show up and give it our best shot no matter what else is going on in our lives. They need us to show them, not just with words but with deeds, that they, those kids, are always our first priority.

COX: The president outlined a set of new initiatives to promote responsible fatherhood, part of an ongoing effort he launched one year ago. With me to talk about the president's focus on fatherhood is Joshua Dubois, director of the White House Office�of Faith-based�and Neighborhood Partnerships, which helps direct the president's fatherhood initiative.

Also here with me in studio, Pastor Kip Banks of the East Washington Heights Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. And we have one of our regular contributors, Lester Spence, the father of five, a blogger and political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. He is with us from member station WDET in Detroit. Gentlemen, welcome to the show.

Mr. JOSHUA DUBOIS (Director, White House Office�of Faith-based�and Neighborhood Partnerships): Good morning.

Reverend KIP BANKS (East Washington Heights Baptist Church): And thanks for having us.

COX: Joshua, let me begin with you, because I'd like to talk about the nuts and bolts of the president's fatherhood initiative. Last year, several members of the administration were dispatched to fan out across the nation for community forums on fatherhood, things of that sort. And yesterday he announced a national mentoring program. So how exactly is this going to work?

Mr. DUBOIS: Sure. Well, listen, President Obama knows from personal experience the power that present fathers can have in the lives of their kids and also the holes that dads leave when they're absent. So as you know, for a number of years he's really sought to explore this issue of fatherlessness in America that's threatening so many communities and placing a disproportionate burden on moms and on kids as well.

As you mentioned, we've led a national conversation on responsible fatherhood where we went out into communities around the country, really sat down with everyday dads and moms and kids and explored, you know, where this problem is coming from. What are the challenges that families are facing and how can we all come together? Individuals, community organizations, faith-based groups and even a small role for the government as well - how can we come together to impact these challenges?

And so after a year of listening and learning, the president is now launching what we're calling the National Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative. The goal here is to join with faith-based groups and fatherhood organizations and women's organizations and many others from across the country to shine a light on the problem of father absence, create a new network of dads that are committed to renewing their commitment to family and community, and also help dads who are facing challenges in their lives overcome those challenges...

COX: Let me break....

Mr. DUBOIS: ...for doing that is through...

COX: Hold on for a second, Joshua, hold on a second. Let me bring Reverend Banks into the conversation, because you've laid out a lot of things for us to follow and I'd like to see from your standpoint, Reverend Banks, if you would, how you would be able to implement this in the faith-based community. Plus, you were at this meeting yesterday.

Rev. BANKS: Yes. And I think the president is right on time in making this call to responsible fatherhood. He spoke with a moral voice that was very compelling, even to me as a father. And frankly, that's what we need. And what I see primarily the president doing here is not asking for a new government program, but as Joshua said, he's calling us to put a spotlight on the significant roles that fathers play in the lives of our children. He's also calling us to be responsible not just for our own children, but for the children in our communities.

COX: Lester, you're a father of five and a scholar of political science with a focus on issues affecting African-Americans. What do you make - both as a father and as a scholar - of the president's initiative?

Professor LESTER SPENCE (Johns Hopkins University): I'm conflicted because I believe - I mean, I believe that fatherhood is something that's very important. My father's always been with me. And my children give me joy in a number of different ways, just as I teach them. But the challenge is, is that what we really are facing isn't necessarily a fatherhood problem but a poverty problem, but an economic stress problem.

And I think that when we're talking about morality and personal experiences, what we end up with is a story that's really divorced from the larger political and economic structures that really impact communities, separate from but also in addition to the lack of fathers.

COX: That would be a challenge, would it not, Joshua, from the standpoint of the president, who has his own personal issues with his own father, trying to bring the gap between regulation, for lack of a better word, of how to help someone become a better father, and deal with some of the issues that Lester just raised about the separation of government and raising a family.

Mr. DUBOIS: Yeah. Well, you know, there are certainly many dads in our country who are facing some real challenges in these tough economic times, especially. And that's why the president proposed some very specific things to help dads who are facing those sorts of challenges, whether it's a transitional jobs program out of the Department of Labor or work with reentering ex-offenders to make sure that they can come back into society and have the tools they need to reconnect in a safe and responsible way to their families and to the economy.

But at the end of the day, as Reverend Banks was saying, we have a real crisis of fatherlessness in many communities around the country. And the last U.S. census showed that there were more than 24 million kids or about one in three who live apart from their biological fathers. In the African-American community that number is 64 percent.

Now, as the president said, you know, these kids are not just looking for a dad to be there economically or to be there, you know, financially, but they just need their dad to be there. And when you're looking at two out of every three families, especially in the African-American community, that's a crisis not of public policy, but that's a crisis that we need to come together to address through personal responsibility.

COX: Reverend Banks has a response. I'll let you get to it. We're going to have to take a break in just a minute, but first, what did you want to say, Reverend Banks?

Rev. BANKS: I just wanted to disagree some with Dr. Spence. I pastor a church with middle income people, low income people, and fatherlessness is not just for poverty, it's an issue that middle income parents are struggling with as well. And so it's across the board. And so, yes, poverty is an issue, but this is a moral issue of our time.

The president is often criticized for not speaking with a moral voice, but on this issue he speaks with a very compelling voice, and the question is, are we listening to what he has to say?

COX: I want to ask the three of you to consider this question, whether or not to attack this problem that I think we would all agree is a problem in not just the black community, but in others as well - the absenteeism of fathers -whether or not you can attack it on an individual basis and go up or whether you can attack it from the top, which is the White House, in this case, and work your way down.

I am joined by Lester Spence, a father of five and a political science professor. Joshua DuBois of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. And Reverend Kip Banks of the East Washington Heights Baptist Church. We're going to continue this conversation after a short break. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: I'm Tony Cox. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, the white author of a memoir about growing up black. It's called "I'm Down."

Before that, we continue our conversation now about responsible fatherhood, an issue President Obama spoke about yesterday.

President OBAMA: I can't legislate fatherhood. I can't force anybody to love a child. But what we can do is send a clear message to our fathers that there's no excuse for failing to meet their obligations. What we can do is make it easier for fathers who make responsible choices and harder for those who avoid those choices.

COX: I'm joined now by political science professor and blogger Lester Spence, who's also the father of five. Joshua DuBois, director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. And Reverend Kip Banks of the East Washington Heights Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

Before the break, Lester Spence, you had some concerns. I'd like to ask you to spell out for us what kind of action you would like to see, whether from the White House or on a more local level to address what some are calling the epidemic of fatherlessness.

Prof. SPENCE: So to give to place this in perspective, one of the things that the president suggested was he was going to push Congress to, I guess, allot $500 million to spur nonprofit initiatives here. Five hundred million dollars, given that we're talking about some 24 million kids who are living without parents, that leads to about $20 a kid, which isn't even the price of an Xbox game. While at the same time we've allotted approximately one trillion dollars to the war.

So if we're going to be serious about this, we need to A) first treat it not as a moral problem but as a political and economic problem. And B) we need to muster the same degree of resources we did to fighting either the war on drugs on the war on terror to deal with not just so much fatherhood, to the lack of fathers, rather, but the needs of mothers and children who live in these communities without them.

COX: Joshua DuBois, what about that? Is it really apples and oranges? Or it is a fair comparison to talk about the expenditures for this kind of initiative versus what's being spent on the war?

Mr. DUBOIS: Well, you know, I think if you ask most Americans, the president's proposal to invest $500 million in family strengthening efforts for both custodial parents - often moms and non-custodial parents, dads, in many cases -is it would be a tremendous investment if Congress funded that. And that goes alongside his work to attack the challenge of prisoner reentry, ex-offenders reentering our society, transitional jobs, as I just mentioned, and a number of ways, really, to look at the challenges facing low income communities and think about how we can come together to address those challenges.

So I think that if Congress moves forward in this way, that that $500 million is a significant investment. But at the end of the day, as Reverend Banks said, you know, this problem, and we have to call it out as a problem of fatherlessness in America, where, again, 64 percent of moms in the African-American community are having to do this on their own. And we have to speak to that from a personal responsibility perspective as well.

The president has said time and again that, you know, that we can all do a better job, and he includes himself in that notion to renew our commitment to families and communities. And our kids aren't looking for us to just be an economic support for them. They just want us to be there and that's a message that we have to get out.

COX: Let me bring Reverend Banks in. It's been mentioned mothers have been mentioned quite a bit in this conversation today, talking about the role that fathers play. From your perspective, what roles should and do mothers play here?

Rev. BANKS: Mothers play a very significant role, and especially when it comes to children who are in single-parent families having access to their fathers. Mothers need to understand that one of the most powerful things that they can do for both their sons and their daughters is to give them access to their father. Because there are certain things that only a father can provide. A young man only learns to become a young man from the example of a father. A young lady only learns the appropriate type of young man to be with, from the example of her father. So it's critical that mothers do what they can do to give their children access to the fathers.

COX: Is the focus of this, as we bring this conversation to a close, is the focus of this a little askew because it is directed solely at the father and not at the mother and father working in tandem for the children?

Rev. BANKS: I dont think the focus...

Mr. DUBOIS: If I can jump in in on that question, there are a range of areas where the president is speaking to the needs of women and girls in our society. In fact, he set up the Council on Women and Girls that is addressing, you know, the challenges that moms and women are facing, from the workplace to other areas as well in a very comprehensive way.

And so this issue of fatherlessness, he's speaking to it because its deeply personal for him, growing up without a dad, also knowing that being a dad is the most important job he has now. So that's where this is coming from for the president. And he recognizes that this is a real challenge for our society as well.

COX: Let me give you about 30 seconds to respond, Rev. Banks to that, because I'd like to hear what your perspective is.

Rev. BANKS: My perspective is that the president is speaking with a powerful moral voice. He's criticized for not having any emotion on the oil spill. But he's speaking from the bottom of his heart to America, saying that both men -all of us need to do what we can do to put the spotlight on the fathers and the importance of responsibility.

COX: Thank you very much, Rev. Kip Banks of the East Washington Heights Baptist Church in Washington, joining me here in studio, Joshua Dubois, director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. And Lester Spence, political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, joining us from member station WDET in Detroit. Gentlemen, thank you all very much.

Prof. SPENCE: Thanks a lot.

Rev. BANKS: Thank you.

Mr. DUBOIS: Bye-bye.

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