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Legislating Parenthood

“If you’re just hanging out out there, maybe you’re sending a check or bringing some cash by, that’s not being a father. You’re just a human ATM. You’re just an ATM. And if you’re not providing the guidance, and you’re not sending any money, you’re just a sperm donor. You’re just a sperm donor.” These pointed words were delivered by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter last month to resounding shouts of approval in a speech that Rich Lowry called “the most extraordinary thing I’ve heard from any politician in a long time.” Lowry made an important distinction when he chose not to call it the best political speech in a long time—because it wasn’t a political speech. It was a trans-political speech: Nutter addressed the moral lives of his constituents, both as parents and children, that stand outside that which can be governed. Nutter’s speech was a precursor to a formal declaration that Philadelphia would be enforcing curfews (one of the stronger liberty-limiting actions a city government can undertake) and threatening irresponsible parents and children alike with jail time. Promoting “responsibility” is a buzzword that makes conservatives swoon in the hope that morals and the virtues of self-government are wedged within the meaning of the word, so it’s appropriate to acknowledge that what Nutter can actually coerce in his city are quite limited. He can force individuals off the street, but he cannot make parents more responsible for their child, nor can he make children more pious and respectful to their parents, community and city. The inherent limitation of government intervention into parenting is what makes Lawrence Mead’s latest policy proposal to increase legislation of poor fathers appear dubious at first glance. In Expanding Work Programs for Poor Men, Mead argues that for a slim, but critical population, government can hassle fathers into fulfilling obligations to their children. The scope of the proposal is sufficiently narrow because he only attempts to alter the behavior of fathers already under government obligations: men who pay child support (this population also significantly overlaps with other the focus of his proposals, ex-convicts). Mead stays away from any fear of developing another crude, overreaching entitlement program by maintain notably modest aims. Mead envisions work programs that, to borrow from Mayor Nutter’s terminology, lift “sperm donor” fathers, who are a costly fiscal drag on our society, to “human ATMs.” While a number of measures have been taken to increase the effectiveness of child support collection by the government, including legislation during the 1980s that made states implement automatic wage withholding and measures to establish paternity in 1993, these measures are sorely lacking, Mead argues, if the father isn’t working. Mead’s answer is a strict child support system that does not allow poor non-paying fathers to fall through the cracks. If a viable and mandatory work program is established in a community, non-custodial fathers “cannot avoid all responsibility.” A father can avoid providing child support by not having a job—but if he can be remanded to a work program by a judge, “that is an obligation the father cannot evade. Now he must show up or pay his judgment—or go to jail for contempt.” Locking fathers into this financial responsibility is not a pipe-dream; Parents’ Fair Share (PFS), a national program that operated in the mid-nineties, was highly effective at “smoking out” fathers eluding the system—over a quarter of respondents admitted they had jobs. Where Mead finds shortcomings in the program was equally telling—there was no success in PFS “fatherhood” program, and even some worsening of family ties. This provides an overt warning to any who hope that modest successes in work programs can be used as evidence that increased government intervention can solve child-rearing problems. Mead even concludes that smaller state programs likely outperformed PFS because “they focused more clearly on getting men to work and keep working in available jobs. Less time and attention was spent on the dimensions of PFS that appeared less successful—training for better jobs and improving relationships with families.” In 2005, $12 billion dollars of child support went uncollected. When you account for the welfare support being transferred to fathers without a job who cannot pay child support, offsetting the cost of putting these men to work should not be a problem. (Mead notes that there is insufficient empirical analysis on past projects—but estimates and Texas’s decision to expand its program despite budget constraints—suggest that the child support work programs can be cost-effective. However, the major saving from his overall proposal derive from the cost of incarceration.) Mead admits that there are a number of unresolved issues, among them questions about guaranteed jobs, sanctions, size of the program and the role of contractors—and he prescribes a process similar to the implementation of the 1996 welfare reforms, which his work had significant influence on. His overarching recommendation for the national policy is that the federal government should cautiously expand work programs, only supporting states prepared to move forward, while simultaneously conducting evaluations about how to best design and run work programs. Lawrence Mead’s proposals, despite being sterilized of moralization and focused narrowly on lifting men out of poverty, hold some promise to indirectly habituate poor men in the virtue of fatherhood. Even if not, the fiscal implications of Mead’s proposals program hold great potential for public officials on any level who feel, as Michael Nutter does, that government is “not running a big babysitting service.” Matthew McKillip is a research assistant at American Enterprise Institute. Lawrence Mead spoke on Expanding Work Programs for Poor Men at an AEI event on September 26, 2011 (video and highlight clips). A Values & Capitalism discussion on September 28, 2011, featured Mead and a panel discussion on responding to urban poverty“Another Day in Paradise?: Humanity, Charity and the Urban Poor”.