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A new program tries to counteract a silent epidemic — the cost of Nashville's absentee fathers

O Father, Where Art Thou?

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If you follow the conventional wisdom, there's never been a greater time to live in Nashville. According to the Chamber of Commerce, Music City is booming. Local unemployment rates are (supposedly) so low, it's doubtful they'd catch a ride in an amusement park. New construction is seemingly as robust as it is ubiquitous, as high-rises creep into largely industrialized and low-density residential neighborhoods.

But as construction cranes tower high above the fenced-off site of the $585 million Music City Center — and the adjacent Omni Hotel being erected in anticipation of the MCC's completion — a different economic tale is being told in North and East Nashville's communities of color, where the seams of recession-era capital have yet to burst forth and trickle down jobs to residents of some of Davidson County's most impoverished ZIP codes.

Despite all the signs of a robust economy on regular display, 48 percent of single mothers in North and East Nashville — representing roughly 23,000 households, mothers and/or children — are living below the poverty line.

That figure, culled from the most recent data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, suggests a social problem on an epidemic scale, one that disproportionately affects African-American communities and wreaks havoc on those communities' abilities to improve their socioeconomic lot from one generation to the next.

It's something that Robert Taylor is trying to change.

"You look at those numbers and say, 'Where are those dads at?' " Taylor tells the Scene. "Disproportionately, African-American fathers are not at home with their children. But it is more so a class issue. When you look at the United States as a whole, about 40 percent of the children born are born in single-parent households."

As a program specialist with the Metro Nashville Department of Public Health — and before that, a food inspector and tobacco control scientist — Taylor now wears the hat of program manager for the New Life Program, an initiative funded by a $4.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that aims to "provide fathers with the skills, knowledge and support they need to become more positively involved in the lives of their children in order to maximize health and well-being of Nashville's families," according to program materials.

The funding will allow Taylor to offer services in the heart of the very neighborhoods hardest hit by fatherlessness, with branches at East Nashville's Martha O'Bryan Center, Matthew Walker's McGruder Family Resource Center in North Nashville, and the Hadley Park Community Center, which will offer services exclusively to teen fathers. Currently, about 60 enrollees have made it out of New Life's "boot camp" phase, but eventually Taylor plans to serve 500 fathers, 750 mothers and 1,300 children once the program's workshops are in full swing.

"We learned that fathers want to be good dads," says Taylor. "Nobody wakes up saying, 'I want to be a crappy dad today.' All of these guys want to be good dads. I think there's a stereotype out there that makes it seem that guys don't know what they're doing. They're really caring about the kids, they're caring about the [child's] well-being, but they don't have the communication skills to figure out how to have an amicable relationship with the mother ... or they just don't know where to go for help. If you're a father and you say, 'Man, I need to figure out how to develop my child's math skills,' what other resources are there out there?"

To achieve this goal, NLP will provide a host of services, including employment training, financial management courses, traditional case management and basic parenting skills, like changing diapers. The program will also attempt to repackage social services traditionally marketed toward women and children in order to appeal to men, who Taylor says have been historically left out of the social service equation due to gender conditioning. If successful, those tools will go a long way toward shoring up family median income and educational attainment levels for their progeny.

From disproportionately high incarceration rates for African-American males to mental health issues and beyond, the factors contributing to absentee fathers are as myriad as the consequences their absence wreaks — not only on their families, but on the cost of providing retroactive social services in an attempt to mend the damage. According to Taylor's proposal, the economic vacuum created by wayward dads accounts for $830 million in local, state and federal spending on Nashville's fatherless families (e.g., food stamps, subsidized housing, Medicaid). In a time of political deficit mania, programs like New Life might be an appealing investment for budget hawks, although Taylor is quick to point out the data proving that won't be compiled until the program has been online for a year and a half.

But there are the social costs too. According to a 2008 report by the Maryland-based National Fatherhood Initiative titled "The 100 Billion Dollar Man," children in single-mother households are more likely to have lower educational attainment levels, suffer increased susceptibility to drug abuse and mental health issues, and have a greater likelihood of being incarcerated than their dual-parent counterparts, just to name a few.

"Today, half of all children, and 80 percent of African-American children, can expect to spend at least part of their childhood living apart from their fathers," reads the report's executive summary. "This dramatic increase in the living arrangements of children is part of a larger demographic revolution that has attracted extensive interest and research. The short story is that in the course of about half a century, many of the foundational patterns of children's living arrangements have been altered. In almost all cases, those changes involve growing impermanence for children, fewer adults, greater chances of poverty, and weak intergenerational connections."

New Life will also partner with the city's legal infrastructure to work out barriers that often trip up fathers, like child support issues, to prevent alienating men from their families in what can usually become an antagonistic relationship between families and state apparatus.

But is a program like New Life — and the $4.8 million in federal money that supports it — enough to reverse the trend?

"To be honest, we don't know right now," Taylor says. "The field is so new. ... A lot of our estimates were done on how to serve mothers in the same type of program, so we will have to see if they compare to fathers or not. But fathers are parents, just like the moms are."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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