The state of fatherhood in the African-American family is “over the cliff” in one local pastor’s words.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a think tank that documents American culture, in 72 percent of African-American families, there is no father. Comparatively, in 70 percent of white families, 66 percent of Hispanic families and 72 percent of Asian families, there are two parents.
“We are just the opposite,” says the Rev. Donald Hunter Sr., pastor of New Beginning Baptist Church and founder of The Black Family Initiative, a coalition of churches dedicated to restoring the black family, especially in the crime-ridden 70805 and 70811 zip code areas of north Baton Rouge.
Hunter, 62, has been married to his childhood sweetheart, Genita Hunter, for 43 years and is a father of five grown children and grandfather to 12. He is a highly educated statistician and CEO of Evaluative and Development Services.
“We’re not just getting close to the cliff, we are already over the cliff,” Hunter says.
46.8 percent of black female-headed households with no husband present live in poverty, according to the American Community Survey of 2012.
For 53.3 percent of single-parent black families who live in poverty, the educational attainment level is less than high school graduation, according to 2012 U.S. Census Bureau figures.
70.6 percent of single-parent black families in poverty have no worker in the family, according to 2012 U.S. Census Bureau figures.
When God created the family, Hunter says, he intended the man to be the provider, protector and priest of his home. But when the father is missing — whether intentionally or because he is unemployed or incarcerated — the single mother and her children most often live in poverty.
“The role of provider, protector and priest has to be assumed by the mother the best that she can or it is absent,” Hunter says. “When you are dealing with poverty as a common factor because the provider, the protector and the priest is not in the home, then that brings about conditions that are environmentally hazardous to the family.”
Poverty causes single-mother households to move about every six months, he says, and the utility bills don’t get paid and the lights are turned off. Poverty also negatively affects the children’s education.
When Hunter established the Black Family Initiative in 2011, more than 500 households were surveyed. When people were asked where the fathers were, he says the respondents had three answers — he was absent of his own free will, he was incarcerated or he was unemployed.
“That speaks to a deeply entrenched moral problem,” Hunter says. “If a young man is freely choosing of his own free will not to be a father to his own flesh and blood, then, in my opinion, that means that in order to change that, the church will have to start teaching fatherhood at age 5.”
The big challenge is to get the church, especially the black church, involved in fatherhood ministries beginning at the elementary Sunday school level.
“We have the facilities, we have the young black men who are excellent fathers who are in our institutions. We have all the pieces,” Hunter says, “but we have not made that transition.”
Part of that transition, he says, is for the Christian community to embrace the hopelessness, especially in young men.
“When I see a young man walking down the street with his pants sagging, in the middle of the day, when he should be either in school or employed,” Hunter says, “that is a hopeless individual. He would say, ‘I don’t have a future.’ ”
Some of those young men who have fathered children and also have been arrested are ordered by the court to undergo Black Family Initiative “intensive counseling.” So far this year, 54 of them have not returned into the judicial system, Hunter says. The results are similar for the three previous years, according to the program’s records.
Hunter says he is climbing a very steep mountain and he doesn’t want to — or have to — climb it alone. There are a half-dozen African-American churches and the predominantly white Chapel on the Campus involved in the Black Family Initiative.
“I’m challenging all Christians — especially the men — to come together and let us address these problems because the family is not a black institution or a white institution, it is a divine institution,” Hunter says. “It is the central mission of who we are called to be, and it is fundamental to the gospel and the kingdom of Jesus Christ.”
And Hunter has a message to the men who, on this Father’s Day weekend, are absent from their families.
“We can help you, we can train you, we are collaborating with different institutions to get you education and jobs. We want to help you,” Hunter says. “Our doors are open every Sunday, and we teach every Wednesday night, and we bid you come just as you are.”
Fatherless children, failing children
While poverty caused by absent fathers dramatically impacts the single-parent family structure, it also has a destructive effect on the children and consequently the local schools — and for more than one generation, Hunter says.
But nobody is talking about it, he adds.
“When 53.3 percent of single-parent black families who are in poverty have an educational level that is less than high school graduates,” Hunter says, “and if the mothers of 72 percent of our families did not complete high school, I will submit that there is a direct correlation into the ‘poverty’ representation, and it also will play out — significantly — to the ability of those children to have the right environment when they get home from schools.”
The only way to change those statistics, Hunter says, is to change the narrative — both locally and on the state level.
“You can change principals all day long and you can change the people on the school board, but until you factor in the fact that 46 percent of the population that you have in your school system are living in poverty, you will not be successful academically, because the environment of poverty affects the child’s ability to learn and compete academically,” he says.
Hunter has crunched pages of statistics from East Baton Rouge Parish schools and discovered some frightening numbers. He says the 2013 LEAP report from the state Department of Education, for example, showed fourth-grade black students were 27 points below white students and 43 points below Asian students. The eighth-grade scores were similar, with black students 26 points below white students and 17 points below the mean score for all races.
One chart, in particular, reveals 1,211 students from 16 middle and high schools in the north Baton Rouge area have been referred to the Office of Juvenile Services, and the vast majority of those students have scored “unsatisfactory,” which is below “approaching basic” on tests.
“We have the state ‘approaching mastery’ as a standard whether a school is successful or not. When we have kids who are ‘unsatisfactory,’ who are ‘approaching basic,’ and we are not factoring in poverty,” Hunter says.
“There is a direct correlation between the health of our schools and the lack of fathers being present in our homes,” Hunter says. “We’re not making the connection.”