Since the mid-1990s, fatherhood—namely responsible fatherhood—has become central to American family and welfare politics. The 1996 federal welfare law encouraged fathers to take a more active financial and social role in their children’s lives. It was geared towards getting poor families off welfare and allowing kids to benefit from the money, time, and care that two parents could provide.
In addition to mandatory child support payments and paternity establishment requirements, this policy led to the creation of numerous grassroots relationship, marriage, and parenting education programs throughout the country. One of their primary goals was to teach fathers how to be better dads and have better relationships with moms, which would hopefully lead to more married two-parent families. These classes presented a unique opportunity to study how welfare policies shape ideas about successful fatherhood and masculinity.
My research examines one of these programs I call Thriving Families, which was specifically designed for unmarried, low-income couples with newborns. I participated in and observed over 150 hours of Thriving Families classes. I also interviewed 60 instructors, program staff, and parents who took the classes. Lessons encouraged parents to value what I call marital masculinity—the idea that marriage provides the best incentive for low-income men to work hard, earn money, and create masculine identities as responsible fathers and breadwinners.
As the program’s executive director, Cynthia, said during an interview: “We know that marriage has a civilizing influence on men…Once they commit,…it’s as if they make a decision to grow up. They go out, they make more money.” Instructors also taught dads that they could demonstrate commitment to their families and worthiness as future husbands, despite being unemployed or making low wages, by “helping out” around the house and focusing on “manly” parenting activities, such as rough-and-tumble play and male role-modeling. Thus, classes did emphasize fathers’ abilities to both care for and financially support their children.
Yet, by endorsing the idea that children and commitment, preferably via marriage, are necessary to get poor fathers seriously invested in the breadwinner ethic, the program reinforced the long-standing social norm that well-paid work, marriage, and fatherhood are the trifecta of modern manhood. This ultimately excludes unemployed and low-income men from dominant definitions of proper fatherhood and masculinity.
Men’s involvement with their children does not depend on having a certain masculine identity or the desire to get a job and work hard. Fathers need resources—especially jobs that pay decent wages—to maintain their commitment to their children. Dads tend to be more involved in their children’s lives and are more likely to marry their children’s moms when they have access to these resources. We need fatherhood programs that both help provide these resources and fully embrace the idea that fathers can be good parents—and good men—exclusively by caring for their children.
By Jennifer M. Randles on her article, “Repackaging the ‘package deal’: Promoting marriage for low-income families by targeting parental identity and reframing marital masculinity,” published in the December 2013 issue of Gender & Society.