SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Two days before Father's Day, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama presented a plan Friday for lifting up poor families that included searing criticism of fathers who abandon their responsibilities to raise children.
"There are a lot of men out there who need to stop acting like boys, who need to realize that responsibility does not end at conception, who need to know that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise a child," Obama said.
The Illinois senator, who as a child had little contact with his African father except occasional letters, drew on his own life story as he spoke, describing the difficulties of growing up without a father. He noted that, without support from his father, he and his mother at times turned to food stamps to make ends meet.
Now, as a presidential candidate delivering his first major speech focusing on poverty in America, he stressed the role absentee fathers have in contributing to economic misfortune, particularly among African-Americans.
"Too many black men simply cannot afford to raise a family -- and too many have made the sad choice not to," Obama said. "A fatherless household takes its toll. Children who grow up without a father ... are five times more likely to live in poverty and nine times more likely to drop out of school."
Obama's criticism of absent fathers in the black community -- he noted that more than half of African-American children grow up in homes without two parents -- reprises a theme he has touched on several times as a senator, first in a Father's Day talk at a South Side Chicago church two years ago. He also introduced related legislation with Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and briefly addressed the subject in a speech in Selma, Ala., earlier this year.
But his comments Friday were his most extensive and personal as a presidential candidate.
Obama's remarks Friday illustrate the opportunities he is afforded as an African-American to address sensitive racial issues; few white presidential candidates would present such blunt criticism, particularly in a Democratic primary.
Still, such comments are not without risk. Bill Cosby provoked charges of elitism and exposed simmering class resentments among African-Americans when in 2004 he sharply criticized the behavior and values of some poor black people.
Obama's comments on fatherhood provided emotional ballast for a speech at an African-American church outlining a vision for bolstering low-income families that balances new government aid with a call for parents to take greater personal responsibility for their children's fate.
Obama said the government has "gone AWOL" as low-income and working-class families face new stresses from a global economy, diminished union representation, stagnant wages, reduced pension benefits and rising health costs.
"Too many rungs have been removed from the ladder to middle-class security, and the safety net that's supposed to break any fall from that ladder has grown badly frayed," he said.
Obama called for a dramatic expansion of the earned-income tax credit, which provides government aid to working poor families and for indexing the minimum wage to inflation.
He also said he would invest $50 million to provide transitional jobs doing community service and training in employment skills. He said that manufacturing-job losses have fallen particularly hard on black men, citing a figure that more than 300,000 of them have lost work in the sector in the past six years.
Obama also said government policies need to be altered to provide greater rewards to fathers who support their children and penalties to those who do not.
He said he would increase funding for child-support enforcement but require state-run collection programs to turn over all funds to the intended recipients. He added that he would allow larger earned-income tax credits for non-custodial parents who support their children.
But he said the success of poor and working-class families still depends heavily on the parents. They must prepare their children for a job market that will demand more education to succeed, he added.
"It's going to take changes in habits and changes in attitudes. We need to work more, read more, train more and think more," Obama said.
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