The left is creating a new scapegoat: `deadbeat dads'

Strip away the moral rhetoric and you will find that finance is driving this issue
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The Independent Culture
IF SINGLE parent mums were the target of the right's moral disapproval for much of this decade, now a new scapegoat is in danger of being created. Deadbeat dads and feckless fathers, have begun to exercise the energies of New Labour. Today, after heavy leaks, the Social Security Secretary, Alastair Darling, will unveil Government's plans in its White Paper to criminalise fathers who are delinquent in paying child support. Delinquent payers, we're told, may be banned from driving and, potentially, sent to jail.

This new emphasis on fathers is political as well as moral, financial and philosophical. While governments are now all too keen to lend a helping hand to today's struggling single-parent mums, when it comes to non-resident fathers, the opposite seems to be true. Here the rhetoric has been harsher, and the message tougher. Political attention has turned to bad dads, amoral dads and dads who have deserted their offspring, and who have walked away from their moral and financial responsibilities.

Strip away the moral rhetoric though, and you will find that finance is driving the issue. Rising rates of divorce and relationship breakdown have produced more and more lone parents dependent on benefits, and more and more children in poverty. Welfare-to-work in America and the New Deal for lone parents in Britain tackles one half of that equation - by encouraging single-parent mums to get back into work - but child support reform, getting non-resident fathers to pay for their offspring, tackles the other.

The proposals, right down to the language of deadbeat dads itself, have a distinctly American flavour. But the infringements of personal liberty and the tactics chosen by many American states are quite shocking. Massachusetts has led the way, with among other things, the power to revoke driving licences when faced with non-payment of child support. More controversial still, posters adorn the Boston subway with photo identikits asking you if you recognise any of these "criminals". Closer inspection reveals them to be dads delinquent in their payment of child support.

The hard-hitting campaign in Massachusetts has been effective, and child support collections have risen dramatically. Partly as a consequence, other American states have followed their lead, encouraging worthy neighbours, friends and even family "to do the right thing" and snitch on those dads who are not accepting their moral (financial) responsibilities.

There is no doubt that this kind of punitive approach has its virtues. It has certainly worked to shame some dads, predominantly middle class ones, into accepting their responsibilities. Quite right too. But the American approach also has its weaknesses. It can alienate and stigmatise those who are unable to pay, perpetuating vicious cycles of exclusion. Many "deadbeats", as Americans like to call them, are actually poor. More and more research has come to light that it's not so much that they won't pay, as that they can't. Poverty, that unfashionable word in the late Nineties, stands in the way, and posters which name and shame the poor and disenfranchised simply reinforce their sense of exclusion from a society that seems reluctant to accept its moral responsibility to them.

New Labour - which is often in thrall to the US experience - should learn the lesson. The good, and somewhat surprising news, from America is that the newest wave of welfare reform there implicitly recognises this. For the first time, federal and state resources are being devoted to welfare- to-work schemes that are targetted at low-income, non-custodial fathers, the kind of fathers who are trapped in America's inner city sink estates.

Of course, the resources nowhere near match the scale of the problem. But it's an historic first. The federal government now recognises that unemployed, non-resident fathers, as well as single parent mums, have specific needs that have to be addressed if they are to be enabled to fulfil their parental obligations.

These employment-based strategies are being directly linked to other initiatives, such as parenting classes. The new message being sent out to these low-income communities is that fathers are more than "walking wallets" - and that love, nurture and parental involvement are also important.

Last year, I visited five states with innovative approaches and talked to the men benefitting from the new employment and education initiatives. Many of the fathers I met feel an enhanced sense of self-worth, equipped as they now are with the knowledge that they can make positive contributions to their children's health and education. They want their children to break out of the vicious cycle of exclusion which has limited their own life chances.

I also found that the most effective schemes were rooted in the local communities, where the trust between service provider and client was strong. Compulsory schemes of participation were less effective. Even Wisconsin, known for its sanctions-based approach, now recognises the need to build incentives into the reform programme, especially where low-income fathers are concerned, and is actively working with community agencies.

When it comes to practical measures, the socially excluded should be at the front of the queue. It is in these communities that the problems of child poverty and father absence are most acute. The next generation of welfare-to-work strategies should be targetted at unemployed fathers, absentee or not, and should offer a voluntary educational component, where involved fathering can be stressed.

New Labour's welfare agenda is imbued with a moral sense. But to be legitimate such an agenda also has to be fair. If society is going to preach the virtues of responsible parenthood, it too has a moral responsibility to create conditions in which low-income parents - fathers as well as mothers - can thrive.

None of this means that New Labour's rhetoric of parental responsibility, nor this week's emphasis on errant fathers, is wide of the mark. Far from it. Just that it needs to be underpinned by a clearer understanding of how poverty impacts on people's capacities to act responsibly, and how, in turn, we as a society have a responsibility to tackle the causes and consequences of that poverty collectively.

Social Exclusion Unit take note.

The writer's research was financed through a Commonwealth Fund Harkness Fellowship and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation