We’ll work to strengthen families by removing the financial deterrents to marriage for low- income couples and do more to encourage fatherhood, because what makes you a man isn’t the ability to conceive a child, it’s having the courage to raise one. And we want to encourage that. We want to help that. (APPLAUSE) Stronger families. Stronger communities. A stronger America.At first glance it sounds pretty general and benign. Who could disagree with that? Well... maybe I do.
Take the first phrase of the first sentence. As for, "we'll work to strengthen families," I'm all for that. But the way he wants to strengthen families is "by removing financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples." Not by better reentry and job creation programs for those coming out of prison, not by increasing affordable housing, not by mandating paid parenting leave or more broadly defining who can take family leave. Just by making marriage more finacially attractive to those with low incomes. It's certainly a kinder, gentler way of saying that marriage strengthens families, but it is, nonetheless, saying just that. For those of you wondering why the Washington Post had so much trouble recognizing Gail Messier's family in her obituary, this speech is a clue.
Of course I want to strengthen families, the families in which people actually live. Here is an example. An employed woman has a child. Her mom comes to live with her to help care for the child. Those two people, who have pooled their emotional and economic resources to raise that child, cannot file a joint tax return, even though, with one stay-at-home adult caring for the child they would save money doing so. Now if they were a married couple with one wage earner, then they could file their taxes jointly. What we need to do is stop making marriage the dividing line in our laws and policies and start dealing with how people actually arrange their intimate and financial lives.
The other part of Obama's proposal is encouraging fathers to raise their children. Many children will be better off with their fathers in their lives. Others won't. Ask a mother who has been beaten by her child's father and who is trying to fight back against his efforts to have more time with that child because she knows it's about power and control, not love and nurturance. All the talk about encouraging fathers to raise their children can create another obstacle to a mother's efforts to protect her child.
The worst part of the father-encouragement rhetoric, however, is that it is invariably connected to mother-blaming rhetoric, as in "those single mothers -- they are the problem." Kudos to Legal Momentum, the organization whose research and policy papers continually prove that there is no inherent connection between births to single mothers and poverty (as they do in this chart). Higher wages, ending discrimination, more public support for children...these are the policies that work and Legal Momentum fights for them. Those who push fathers and marriage as the solution tend to oppose all such efforts. When "fatherhood initiatives" resulted in education and job training programs for fathers only, Legal Momentum's advocacy against sex-discrimination opened those programs to mothers as well.
Back to Obama's speech. It could have been a lot worse. The marriage and fatherhood rhetoric was worse under the Bush administration. But why include it at all? It is not synonymous with "stronger families," and suggesting that it is sends the wrong message even when it's done gently.