Fatherless and Hopeful in America


For the last 20 or 30 years Americans have been in "deep denial" about the importance of fathers in the lives of boys.

It was midafternoon at a local bowling alley. The old-timers’ leagues were just finishing up. Suddenly a busload of kids filled the carpeted lounge. Confusion reigned as the children excitedly chose lanes and changed shoes. Energetic 10-year-old boys hollered and jumped as they rolled gutter balls and strikes. Meanwhile, several 17-year-old men calmly demonstrated how to aim and keep score.

Oscar Vergara, director of the Big Bothers/Big Sisters Program in Syracuse, N.Y. explained that this outing is part of a program pairing high school students with elementary students. Most of the little boys are not living with their fathers, Vergara explained, and need positive male role models. When the boys aren’t bowling they’re tinkering with computers, watching hockey games or having snowball fights. Both ages love it.

“It turned out to be one of the greatest things we’ve done,” Vergara said.

It also turns out to be a great example of how Americans are trying harder these days to meet the needs of fatherless boys.

“There is much more attention being paid to boys in the media and publishing industry than ever before,” said David Popenoe, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University. “There’s a whole new movement focusing on males in general, rather than females.”

Signs of the movement are everywhere. In the last five years, bookstores have been deluged with titles on the topic. One of the first was Fatherless America by David Blankenhorn, followed shortly by Popenoe’s Life without Father. Aided by the internet, pro-fatherhood organizations are sprouting like seeds after a spring rain. They include the National Center for Fathering in Kansas, the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood in Washington, D.C., and the Fathers’ Resource Center in California.

When Wade Horn started the National Fatherhood Initiative in Maryland in 1994, he counted about 200 fatherhood-related programs nationwide. Today he counts more than 2,000. By now all 50 states have some sort of pro‑fatherhood program in place, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

There’s even activity at the federal level. Aided by a congressional task force, two major fatherhood bills are making their way through Capitol Hill. The Fathers Count Act is sponsored by Rep. Nancy Johnson, RConn., and Rep. Benjamin Cardin, DMd., while the Responsible Fatherhood Act is sponsored by Sen. Pete Domenici, R.- N.M., and Sen. Evan Bayh, D - Ind.

Leaders of the movement welcome all the activity. For the last 20 or 30 years Americans have been in “deep denial” about the importance of fathers in the lives of boys, said Horn. In former days, many people might have looked at a single mother raising sons and thought everything was OK, so long as there was love in the family. But society is beginning to realize that boys living without their fathers are at a serious disadvantage because fathers can contribute things mothers cannot.

“I think we’re starting to break through the denial,” Horn said. “We’re seeing some pretty dramatic changes.”


There are various reasons for the changes. Some credit the bloody school shootings of 1998 and 1999, which riveted public attention on youth violence. Horn spoke for many last year when he told readers of the Jewish World Observer that he couldn’t think of a single school shooting where the shooter was a girl. This is fostering a public consensus that, in Popenoe’s words, “boys, not girls, are the real problem in society.”

Others credit the influence of recent mass men’s gatherings in the nation’s capital, like the Million Man March and the Promise Keepers’ rally. Still others point to alarming statistics indicating that boys who live without their fathers are five times more likely to live in poverty and much more likely to become violent criminals.

Among scholars, the movement is also fueled by the rediscovery of texts on male sexual development. According to Popenoe, social scientists have long known that adolescent boys who do not live with their fathers have trouble breaking away from their mothers to join the world of men. The result, Popenoe said, is that fatherless boys often become “superpredators” who are highly promiscuous and who “treat women like dirt.”

For these reasons, leaders of the fatherhood movement see themselves addressing a host of social ills, including crime, teen pregnancy and domestic violence against women. “Much of the increase in these problems is attributable to the spread of father absence,” said Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values in New York. “The weakening of marriage and fatherhood is the main reason for the deterioration of child well-being in many areas.”


Expect to hear more about this issue in the coming year, as politicians try to build support for pro‑fatherhood legislation at the state and federal levels. If the Responsible Fatherhood Act becomes law, it will provide $150 million for a media campaign promoting fatherhood and its benefits.

Americans can also expect to see more participation by religious groups. Welfare reform opened the door to government cooperation with “faith‑based’ organizations in 1996, and both fatherhood bills widen that opening by inviting charities and religious organizations to apply for state funding. Someday the men’s group in the local church might even be able to obtain funds for a Father’s Day project.

How long the media spotlight illuminates the fatherhood issue depends in part on current events. Popenoe predicted the glare will last “as long as deviant boys remain in the news.”

Yet Blankenhorn sees a movement only in its infancy. Churches in Brooklyn, N.Y., Indianapolis and other cities have begun fatherhood programs in recent years, but many are still small.

“It’s all new,” Blankenhorn said, “so you don’t really know what’s working and not working,”

What’s more, many fatherhood programs lack a key ingredient: training men to succeed in marriage. Because most fatherlessness today is caused by divorce or out-of-wedlock births, “there needs to be a lot more done” to strengthen marriage, he said.


For this reason, Blankenhorn has scheduled to meet in New York this month with family scholars from leading universities around the country to draft a mission statement for what has come to be known as the marriage movement. Fueled by statistics showing the U.S. marriage rate has fallen to an all‑time low, that movement is gaining momentum on college campuses and in statehouses around the country. Like the fatherhood movement, the marriage movement could also achieve federal recognition in the next few years. And if more men and women find success in marriage, the problem of fatherlessness could greatly diminish.

Until then, however, Oscar Vergara will continue trying to find male mentors for fatherless boys in Syracuse. It’s a big job — while he has placed 97 children with big brothers or big sisters, he still has 71 on his waiting list.

For more Information:

The National Fatherhood Initiative,
101 Lake Forest Blvd. Suite 360
Gaithersburg, Md. 20877
(301) 948-0599

Big Brothers/ Big Sisters of America
230 N. 13th St.,
Philadelphia, Pa. 19107
(215) 567-7000


Don Harting. “Fatherless & Hopeful in America.” National Catholic Register. (January 23-29, 2000).

Reprinted by permission of the National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.


Don Harting is a correspondent with the National Catholic Register.

Copyright © 2000 National Catholic Register

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