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Father's Day: Big Deal


Washington. -- I love new ties and shirts, so I awaken today, Father's Day, with the joyous knowledge that my children and grandchildren are going to deliver some sartorial delights.

I awaken also with happiness that I am not among the sad statistics regarding fathers and families in America.

I don't think I could hold my head up high enough to put a new tie on if I were among the millions of irresponsible fathers known as "deadbeat dads." I read Thursday of a former Virginia lawyer who was hauled back from Florida and ordered to pay $132,000 in overdue child support. The U.S. attorney accused him of stealing "from the most vulnerable members of society: our children."

Fathers have taken such a public-relations beating in recent years that the 15.6 million kids growing up in the 11.9 million households headed by women may wonder what the Father's Day fuss is all about. These are the children most likely to live in poverty and to get into trouble, sexually, criminally or otherwise, because a mother alone cannot provide all the supervision, guidance and discipline and protection that American youngsters need.

Just as the stigma has been lifted from births out of wedlock, it has been removed from divorce. I remember when a divorce suggested that one or both partners was weak of mind and spirit, or one lacked fidelity. Now, half the brides and grooms pledging eternal love this June will become divorce statistics within a few years.

And divorce is often such a mean, embittering affair that millions of fathers think it is justice for them to refuse to pay for the support of their children and ex-spouses.

Then, we have social and legal policies that exacerbate the problem of having myriad households where no father is either present or glorified today. We have invidious job discriminations that leave black and Hispanic males unemployed or underemployed, bereft of pride, disrespected by wife and children to the point of the man's abandonment or divorce.

We build more and more prisons in which to incarcerate more and more young minority men, with the result that the simple imbalance of numbers of partners available decrees an increase in female-headed households.

One laudable trend in families where fathers are present is that they are taking a bigger role. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 325,000 men ages 25 to 54 were keeping house full-time in 1993, a 26 percent increase over 1990, and the Census Bureau says that 16 percent of preschoolers were cared for primarily by their dads while their mothers were working. That's "the best kept secret in American child care," says James Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project at the New York-based Families and Work Institute, although he stresses that this is usually not a role-reversing "Mr. Mom" situation but rather a tight-budget necessity.

While many black fathers are becoming more involved in the lives of their children, numerous studies show that they need decent jobs more than a day-care role, especially where the wife works at poverty-level wages.

It is well established that high black male unemployment underlies the tragic rate of separation and divorce. Last week's Journal of the AMA reported that a New Orleans study found that poverty and "household crowding" accounted for the sixfold difference in black and white rates of domestic homicide.

An overriding social issue in America is fathers and what they earn, and how much they share with spouses, ex-spouses and their children. That's why I'm hoping that millions more dads than I think are exulting the way I am over new shirts and ties, and expressions of the love and respect of their families.

8, Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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