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Dark Hearts Testimony By

Ronald B Mincy

Contradiction is the word that best describes the real situation depicted by Dark Hearts, a compelling film just released by Fathers Incorporated. The film depicts a family, with a chronically unemployed father, a working poor mother, and their son. The father is in desperate need of a job to support his son and win the respect, cooperation, and, perhaps, forgiveness and affection of his (former) partner. However, his efforts to find employment are unsuccessful. He lacks job skills and is unsupported in his job search efforts, so he spends his day scouring the community for social services and “help-wanted signs.” Because he is obviously able-bodied, no social service worker would deem him eligible for assistance; because he presents himself so poorly, no employer is willing to hire him. Meanwhile, the mother of his son moves frantically between home-maker and administrative work, continually stressed by the threat of layoff if she is late to her administrative job, again. Apparently unable to forgive his many broken promises and other unstated, failures, she risks her livelihood as well as the well-being of their son, rather than accept the support and help the father offers to provide. She also ignores her son’s wishes to have contact with his father.

The storyline is briefly interrupted by a public service announcement, depicting yet another contraction. It shows a girl, about the same age and race (African-American) of the boy shown in the film. As she diligently practices her cheerleading routine, the camera lens widens to show her father by her side, vigorously imitating her every movement, every cadence, every chorus, though he is three times her age, more than three times her weight, and lacks her colorful uniform and pom-poms. Then, as the camera pans still further away to show the chronically unemployed fathers' reaction, it becomes clear that the message of the public service announcement "be a father to your child," falls on deaf ears. Neither he, his partner, nor society really expects him to follow this healthy example until he fulfills the, more fundamental, breadwinner role.

Over the last two decades America has sought and made progress on solutions to a host of seemingly intractable problems, including: civil rights, the cold war, gender equity, teenage pregnancy, information technology, universal healthcare, and economic growth and stability. But the needs of children in families such as the one depicted in Dark Hearts remain unmet. Along with colleagues at Princeton and Columbia University, I began a study of children in families like these 20 years ago, and we have been following these children and their parents (both mothers and fathers) for 15 years. We have also been following children born to stably married parents living in the same cities. The differences between the parents and their children are telling.

Stably married parents generally have more social, personal and economic resources than unmarried parents, even before their children are born. After the birth, unmarried parents almost universally hope to marry and work together to support their child. However, within three years most of these unmarried parents break up, just like the father and mother in Dark Heart. By the time their children are five years old, only half of children see their fathers at all. I think these resource gaps partly explain why unmarried parents are unable to sustain their relationships, despite their high hopes at birth. For this reason, 20 years ago I used the term fragile families to denote unmarried mothers and fathers, and the children who they jointly tried to support, though unsuccessfully. Despite some criticism of this term, dozens of studies over the past 20 years based on the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study show that stably married parents are also able to muster more of the resources their children need. Further, these resource advantages account for many of the health, behavior, and cognitive advantages that children born to stably married families enjoy over children born to fragile families.

Despite what we have learned, we still don’t know how to close the resource gaps between children in fragile families and children in stably married families. As a result, the son depicted Dark Heart is much more likely than the son of a stably married family to meet and have children with a young and poorly-educated woman, without marrying. Doing so almost guarantees that these parents will pass on the resource gaps that stifled their development onto a third-generation.

Thus, the film depicts what we already know, and yet, we lack the maturity, creativity, and political will to stop this vicious cycle. Contradiction! 

Maurice V. Russell Professor of Social Policy and Social Work Practice
Columbia University School of Social Work

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