ROLAND WARREN: American fathers worth rebuilding

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One of my favorite television shows growing up was “The Six Million Dollar Man.” It was about secret agent Steve Austin (played by Lee Majors) who had been severely injured in a plane crash and then “rebuilt” for special missions with the Office of Scientific Intelligence of the CIA. The operation to give him bionic, and thus more powerful, body parts cost $6 million.

The show’s opening popularized the phrase, “We can rebuild him - we have the technology.” Indeed, the government agency that rebuilt him vowed to make him “better than he was before - better, stronger, faster.” Having this one man be better, stronger and faster was worth at least $6 million to the government.

In the wake of Father’s Day, I was reminded of the show’s premise when I considered the state of our nation’s fathers and fatherhood in general. Like Steve Austin, the institution of fatherhood, in too many communities, needs to be rebuilt.

Indeed, fatherhood is at a crossroads. On one hand, today’s involved fathers are more engaged in the day-to-day care of their children than at any time in recent memory. On the other hand, far too many fathers are disconnected from their children - more than 25 million children, one out of every three, live absent their biological fathers. These children are at least two to three times more likely to be poor; to use drugs; to experience educational, health, emotional and behavioral problems; to be victims of child abuse; and to engage in criminal behavior than peers who live with both of their parents.

With Steve Austin, the question was, “How much will it cost to rebuild him?” With our nation’s fathers, the question is, “How much will it cost not to rebuild them?”

Until now, we could only guess. But the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) has sought to put a real dollar value on how much father absence is costing our nation. The answer is $100 billion annually. Talk about inflation.

NFI’s new report, “The One Hundred Billion Dollar Man: The Annual Public Costs of Father Absence,” written by the late Steven Nock of the University of Virginia and Christopher Einolf of DePaul University, measured the proportion of 2006 federal expenditures on child-support enforcement and 13 means-tested benefits programs that serve father-absent homes.

The $99.8 billion result is nearly 4 percent of the federal budget. Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) accounted for more than half of the $99.8 billion in expenditures, at $53 billion.

Given the enormousness of these numbers, if only a fraction of our nation’s absent fathers returned to their families and lifted them out of eligibility for the benefits programs, there would be huge savings for taxpayers. For example, the federal government spent nearly $35 billion on food stamps in 2006. Imagine if a third of these father-absent homes were no longer in need of federal assistance? The presence of these fathers would pay for almost the entire Food Stamp Program.

Assuredly, the value of fathers is measured in more than dollars and cents - they play a unique and irreplaceable role in their children’s emotional, physical, psychological and educational development. With their invaluable emotional contribution to their kids and their $100 billion monetary value to taxpayers, it is clear that the time to act is now.

Borrowing the theme from “The Six Million Dollar Man,” we can rebuild the American father. We have the “technology.” Since the mid-1990s, NFI and other organizations have fought to renew the institution of fatherhood in America by launching public education campaigns, providing social services organizations with fatherhood supports, producing curriculums and other skill-building materials for dads, and many other tactics.

In the last five years, more organizations in the government, health care, business, corrections, faith, community, educational and military sectors have added fatherhood programming to their services to families.

In 2006, the federal government passed the first dedicated funding stream, $50 million, to support fatherhood work nationally.

More needs to be done, however. Dedicating $50 million, $100 million, or even $500 million per year to a problem that costs $100 billion per year certainly is not excessive. The government and private sector should view expenditures on fatherhood renewal as very well-placed investments.

As much as I loved “The Six Million Dollar Man,” if saving that one man was worth $6 million, how much is saving 25 million children worth? Making our nation’s fathers more involved, more responsible and more committed than before would be priceless to our nation’s most valuable asset - our children.

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