What about the fathers and how can we help?

Tianna's children when homelessToday, most families are no longer the traditional model of “family” – a mother and father with 2.5 kids and a dog with a home-cooked meal on the table every night.  Families take a variety of forms – one parent, a parent and a grandparent, two dads, two moms, as well as the traditional father and mother.

In our respective organizations, we work with a number of moms struggling seemingly on their own to make ends meet.  When talking about our work, we hear the often judgment-filled question, “What about the fathers?” Some of those who ask this question do not understand the day-to-day reality for many of our families.  Through our work with the members of Witnesses to Hunger, we know many households struggle even with fathers in the picture.

Once while I was giving a tour of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities in Philadelphia, a prominent leader asked me (Mariana) about a photo hanging in my office. The picture of three young children and several suitcases was taken by Tianna, a member of Witnesses to Hunger, after her family checked out of a motel when they were homeless. Gazing up at the despair and stress in the eyes of the children in the photo, the man then turned to me and asked “Where is the father of these children?” This question dripped with accusation and the assumption that if fathers were present and active in families, then children would not face hardships. What the casual observer of this particular photo does not know, however, is that the father of those children was standing next to his wife, their mother, as she took the picture. Despite a two-parent household, low wages forced Tianna and her family onto the street.

Similarly, I (Justin) recently talked with a father of two young children who lamented the fact that when his family found themselves homeless with nowhere to turn, they were forced to split up as a family. Shelter rules did not permit him to stay with his partner and children. When I met this family on my commute home from BostonMedicalCenter, they were savoring the final minutes of the evening before they would be once again pulled away from each other to spend the night in different places. The lack of assistance for homeless families in Boston, like many other cities, drove this loving father and devoted partner away from his family night after night.

So what about the fathers? We realize these are snapshots that do not tell the whole story, but they do point to the bigger picture. As passionate advocates for child health and well-being, we have to look at the ways in which social, political, and economic structures impact the entire family. Children benefit from parents, mothers and fathers, who are afforded opportunities for success.

One pathway to economic independence for families is to support workforce development and education programs for all people facing hardships, regardless of marital status, household composition, or participation in social service programs. Witnesses often tell us that the fathers of their children provide necessary emotional support for their families, but the men do not have the ability to provide economic resources because of a lack of available employment opportunities that pay a living wage to men with their skillsets in their communities. Research from Children’s HealthWatch and others show that supporting caregivers through programs that alleviate economic hardships and reduce stress improve the health and well-being of children. But the experiences of the Witnesses tell us that public policies and programs do not do enough to provide pathways for success for low-income fathers. Improving workforce development programs and creating more jobs that pay a living wage and are available to all people facing economic hardship will help improve the lives of families by bolstering fathers who wish to provide financial resources for their children.

In addition to expanding employment opportunities, policy makers should take seriously the national push to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for individuals. Currently, a bipartisan conversation has begun about how increasing this tax credit for individuals may have positive impacts on families. Some individuals receiving EITC may be fathers, who, for many reasons, may not be living with their families, but may still be supporting them financially. Providing adequate support to these fathers may in turn improve the well-being and stability of their children, even if they are not residing in the same household.

Finally, when families experience extreme hardships, such as homelessness, we must have policies in place that account for a variety of family units, including families with adult men. Splitting families up or forcing fathers to disappear from the lives of their children so that a mother can work within an unjust system to attempt to stabilize the family is unacceptable – and creates further trauma and harm for all members of these vulnerable families. We must find ways for families facing hardships to access shelter and benefits without being penalized because of their family structure.

It is time to ask how we, as a society, unwittingly contribute to inaccurate and negative stereotypes of fathers in low-income communities.  It is time to ask how our policies unintentionally divide families- and how better, more responsive policies can strengthen families instead.  There should be opportunities for bipartisan consensus on these better policies—including the stronger EITC for individuals—which would both support strong family relationships and improve family financial well-being.

It is time to recognize the role of fathers today, and the role that families can play.  We must build policies that will create pathways of success for fathers.  When we do, mothers and children will undoubtedly benefit too.


Photo: Being Homeless with Children 

“The hardship of being homeless with children is what I would like people to see. When you look into my children’s faces and in their eyes in that picture, they’re only one and five years old, but you can see the stress and the loneliness. Especially in my oldest son because he’s been through it before. When we were homeless we spent a lot of time outside just to get out and clear our heads. When you’re homeless it seems like it’s not just being homeless from having a home; it’s being homeless from having self-respect and self-worth, and just not being able to do what you want to do.” 

-Photo and voice by Tianna G., Philadelphia, PA