Where Are the Dads? Treating Richmond's Fatherless Epidemic
"I always thought father absence was a social services issue, but Dr. Stern elevated it to a public health issue," says Gullins, a former youth pastor and schoolteacher from Norfolk, two hours southeast of Richmond. "I had never heard that before. As I saw the tears well up in his eyes, I knew I had to be a part."
With Stern, Gullins convened a Core Team of local nonprofit heads, pastors, and doctors who understood the root causes of father absence. Using the research model of Benjamin Scafidi, a Georgia economist and author of the 2008 report "The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing," the team produced a "costs and solutions document" that translated Richmond's family fragmentation into raw taxpayer costs. "When we're talking with politicians, it's always important to understand the bottom line," says Gullins. "We needed to know how to talk their language, to get a handle on the cost."
The findings were sobering: Of all births in Richmond in 2007, 65 percent of children were born to single mothers. Among black children, that rate was 84 percent. (In 2007, the national nonmarital birth rate was 40 percent.) And the social service programs stepping in for broken family structures—child welfare, food stamps, housing assistance, and school meals, among others—were alone costing the city over $50 million annually. Martin Brown, Virginia Commissioner of Social Services and Core Team member, says the document revealed how much the God-ordained institutions of family and government had gotten entangled. "Each institution has either acquiesced or taken responsibility away from the other, and we've grown dysfunctional in solving some of our problems," says Brown. (Using Scafidi's model, Brown calculates that father absence costs the state $2 billion annually.)
The report also revealed how incarcerating men without offering rehabilitation has fragmented Richmond's families, costing $35 million annually in the process. (All interviewees for this story said the country's gross incarceration rates among black men amount to "the new Jim Crow," and recommended Michelle Alexander's new book of the same name.) "Those of us in public health apply preventive more than curative strategies," says Stern. "The curative strategy puts more money in jails. The preventive strategy asks, 'Wait a minute, why are these young men dropping out of school? What's happening to the father of this baby?' We're raising questions about the more fundamental elements."
Stern is clear that RFFI is about aligning Richmond's health stats with the state average, not about making "a religious, right-ring, Republican statement," as some have charged. "This is what the research shows."
"If you look at health, education, and poverty indicators, people in stable families with a married mother and father have higher high-school graduation rates and income," says Danny Avula, Richmond's deputy health director and Core Team member. "It's not only about the theological basis for the design of a man and a woman. When you look at outcomes, it's a no-brainer."
The Government Can't Change a Heart
But it's also been a no-brainer for Richmond's faith-based community, which Gullins says has responded overwhelmingly to RFFI.