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Re-Defining Fatherhood in America’s Inner Cities

15712659775_2823703411_kBy Stan Paul

Researcher Kathryn Edin has long been known for her groundbreaking work on poverty and the lives of women and men in American inner-city neighborhoods. Her qualitative work in communities has gone beyond the numbers – and easy assumptions —  to the heart of issues that evade answers by mere quantitative means.

The Johns Hopkins sociologist, whose work has focused on questions such as “How do single mothers possibly survive on welfare,” has more recently turned her lens on the lives of fathers in the complex area of family formation. Edin, spoke this past week at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, part of the 2014 FEC Public Lecture Series sponsored by the Luskin School and the Center for the Study of Inequality.

In her recent book, Doing the Best I Can: Fathering in the Inner City (co-authored with Timothy Nelson), Edin again goes directly to the communities she studies. There, she hears from the fathers themselves, and looks beyond labels such as “deadbeat dads.”

In giving both the good and bad news, Edin comments, “I’m just telling you how it is.” She reports that that good news is that young men want to embrace fatherhood and that overwhelmingly, their first reaction to news that “she’s pregnant” is positive, even enthusiastic despite being “un-planned.” “They, too, see parenting as a key source of meaning and identity,” said Edin, adding, “Children have a tremendous power to transform young disadvantaged men’s lives.” Whether described as “saints” or “deadbeats,” Edin concedes in her studies of these men, “the typical father is both.”

And, the bad news is that, while the fathers (African American and Caucasian) she interviews describe themselves as happy, the “odds are very long that a father will remain closely connected to this child throughout the life course,” said Edin. In addition, when fathers have children with multiple partners, there may be intense daily contact with one child but little or no contact with others, in conjunction with highly contentious co-parenting relationships, she said. This “serial selective fathering” puts fathers in what Edin calls a family-go-round or the children into a “father-go-round.”

Edin says that despite “how it is” that “we shouldn’t give up,” looking “farther upstream” for solutions to this complex problem. This includes both a “societal change of heart for these men,” to get things started, but also a “call to honor their fatherhood in every stage.”

Edin’s presentation was co-sponsored by the Ralph and Goldy Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, the Institute for Labor and Employment, the Institute of American Cultures, The Bunche Center for African American Studies, The California Center for Population Research, and the Sociology Family Working Group.