New York Times’ Herbert Right on Families, Wrong on Dads

Bob Herbert, meet Kay Hymowitz.  I love playing matchmaker.

Of course Bob Herbert of the New York Times and Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute probably don’t have much to say to each other, so my attempt at virtual matchmaking probably won’t meet with a lot of success, but you never know.  Actually, if Herbert just listened to what Hymowitz has to say on the problems of poor families, particularly African-American ones, he’d be ahead of where he is now.

In this column, Herbert is bemoaning the plight of poor young blacks in this country and this economy.  He’s particularly concerned about young men.  That’s appropriate; the statistics across the board on those young men are alarming.  From drug use to lack of education to lack of employment to incarceration, the numbers don’t lie.  Herbert, like so many other commentators is well aware of the problems.

And like so many others, he rightly says that, basically, there are things that individuals control and things they don’t.  Individual African-Americans can’t do a thing about past racial oppression.  They can’t do a lot about current racial prejudice or unequal treatment, although they can keep trying, and to their credit, many do.

But what they can do is fix their own houses.  And that is where family breakdown comes in, which Herbert rightly identifies as the main problem facing young African-Americans of both sexes.  The astonishing rates of out of wedlock childbearing among African-American women must come down if African-American children and youth are to move forward.  Children of all races need intact biological families in which to grow up; the evidence of social science on the point is decisive.

Try as we mght, there is no reliably good alternative to intact, biological parenting of children.  We’ve done that experiment over the last 40 years or so, and we know the results.  It’s long past time to stop pretending otherwise.

So far, so good; Herbert seems to be aware of all that.  What Hymowitz could tell him, as her piece here makes clear, are the results of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing research that’s ongoing at the Bendheim-Thoman Center at Princeton under the supervision of Sarah McLanahan (Los Angeles Times, 1/11/10).

Herbert’s “solution” to the problem that “Black men need to be in the home, providing for their children,” echoes President Obama’s call for paternal responsibility.  I’m all for fathers being responsible for their children, but as Hymowitz and the Fragile Families data show, that’s not really the heart of the matter.

The reason African-American men aren’t more involved in their children’s lives has less to do with them and their motivations than it does with maternal gatekeeping.  Put simply, the single mothers studied tend to view as replaceable the fathers of their children.  And when they move on to another partner, the father tends to be marginalized in his child’s life and upbringing.  Hence, fatherlessness.

As I pointed out recently, the work done by Prof. Kathryn Edin at Harvard shows mothers changing partners tends to be far more important to creating fatherless children than fathers doing so.  If we want to put fathers back in the lives of black children – and anyone who wants to see African-Americans improve their status wants exactly that – we’ll need to address the maternal gatekeeping that keeps them apart.

That’s what the Fragile Families data show.  It’s what Herbert either isn’t aware of or doesn’t want to admit.  It’s what Kay Hymowitz could tell him if he’d only listen.

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