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Blog: Addressing Family Adversity through Comprehensive and Holistic Approaches

Jul 28, 2010 | By Amy Johnson, Emerson Hunger Fellow

Critical in the conversation on the effectiveness of our federal social service system are the issues faced by families who need multiple forms of support and by non-custodial fathers. Both of these problems were brought to light in a presentation sponsored by Congressman Danny K. Davis (IL-07) yesterday, entitled, “Social Service Systems: Adapting to Families’ Needs and Adversity.”

Dr. Kirk Edward Harris, Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee and Dr. Robert George, Research Fellow & Associate at Chapin Hall, University of Chicago, both spoke of the multiple problems that families face in overcoming life challenges. From experience as a lawyer assisting families in need, Harris expressed the critical importance of recognizing informal networks of support—immediate and extended family, social networks, the neighborhood, and community centers—and the need to build upon these existing framework in providing federal aid. He expressed, “We have to understand what families are doing right and recognize that resilience in helping them move forward….” We have to “Connect and strengthen community networks and integrate services into these networks.” Harris calls for community building as a crucial component of helping families rise above poverty.

In a more quantitative attitude, George shared studies conducted in Illinois that revealed that there are a small proportion of families using the majority of the budget for federal assistance programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, incarceration costs, drug rehabilitation programs, and others. Although these families with multiple problems made up only 23% of low-income families within the study, they represented 86% of the dollars spent (including Medicaid). In response to these findings, George expressed the importance of having more father involvement in various programs, coupled with “an array of services that meet [people’s] particular circumstances.”

The following two panelists, Helen Mitchell, MPA, director of Strategic Planning and Policy Development for Congressman Davis, and Joshua Dubois, Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, turned to policy solutions for the problems faced by disinvested families. Dubois expressed the president’s personal and political commitment to stimulating responsible fatherhood, which includes his design of a Fatherhood, Marriage, and Families Innovation Fund to scale up successful models and encourage states to experiment with possibilities to administer effective support

 Mitchell expressed that current programs are decentralized, patched together, and have little oversight. Additionally, few of these programs provide support to non-custodial fathers. She mentioned that HR 2979, the Julia Carson responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act includes plans to provide more support for non-custodial fathers, especially in respect to those who are or have been incarcerated. She noted that it is vital to “build public policy that has the family at the center.” She continued to express that all too often our rhetoric regards the family, but our policy creates a paradox that does not carry out our family values.

The presentations were both insightful and hopeful—looking at old problems in new ways and overcoming the challenges ahead by building upon existing resources and by providing more holistic support.