The sleet was furious, but there stood Fred Fetid, my neighbor, at my front door.
"May I come in?" he said.
"Certainly," I responded. He took off his soaked coat. I turned on the faux fireplace in my living room, got him some bourbon and asked, "What's up?"
"I'm confused," Fred said. "Just last week, Sen. Evan Bayh announced that nearly $1 million will come to the Indiana Youth Institute to encourage responsible fatherhood. It's part of a $50 million national grant program that Bayh has been working on for at least seven years."
"That's great," I said. "There seems to be no doubt that there are too many children growing up in homes without consistently concerned males around."
"Yeah, that seems to be true, but what is this program going to do?" Fred asked. "It's going to sponsor 'summits' around the state where experts are going to talk about the problem and solutions. Then, IYI will tell participants how to apply for grants to run programs in their areas. IYI says it will support successful applicants with up to 300 hours of 'free' technical assistance. 'Free'? It looks to me like the usual boondoggle to fund administrative jobs for middle-class people."
"That's particularly cynical," I said. "But how many of the male-less homes are that way because we put so many men in jail for relatively minor drug-related offenses? Then, when they get out, they have trouble getting jobs. How will these programs go about addressing those problems?"
"I don't know," Fred responded, still shaking from the cold and damp. "How many homes are male-less because the women drive the men out by their behaviors? This whole thing smacks of antimale propaganda. Why is this a 'responsible fatherhood' program? Shouldn't it be a 'responsible parenting' program?"
"Careful," I said, "don't let your wife hear you talking like that."
"I just don't know the answers," Fred said. "What if all these fatherless households are really the wave of the future? Are we trying to hold on to something that represents values and concepts that are becoming obsolete? There are so many successful young people who emerge from single-parent households. We hear all the stories and data about those who don't succeed and it is frightening. But is this a matter of education and income rather than the absence or presence of a father?
"And," Fred continued, "does a home require a father or are we talking about male role models for children? The whole issue is very complex and here we have a measly $50 million being spent because we think we know how to do something 'noble'."
Clearly, the warm fire and the bourbon were working on Fred. I threw in my two cents.
"How many dollars in this highly fragmented program will be used for overhead and duplicated services? How will each program be evaluated for effectiveness? Is each coalition of agencies receiving grants going to conduct its own evaluation or is IYI going to do that? Or will some office of the federal government conduct the evaluations?
"Is the goal to reduce the number of households without fathers present or without males present, or the number of children without fathers/males present? Or are we going to look for behavioral changes from fathers or from children? Do we seek better school performance, less involvement in crime or something else?"
"See why I came over here?" Fred said, grinning. "Now you're as confused as I am. Is there any more bourbon left in that bottle?"
Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to email@example.com.