The men who signed up to join the Responsible Fatherhood programs in four Midwestern sites recall exceptionally hard lives, as a new qualitative study of 87 mostly black fathers reveals. Of the men in the study, 95 percent had been arrested at least once, and 78 percent convicted of a crime. Almost 75 percent were either unemployed or made less than $500 a month. About half had struggled with substance abuse. Only 22 percent were currently living with at least one biological child.

The challenges they have had to overcome, from childhood onward, are astonishing. Over two-thirds of the 87 men grew up without their fathers. About 20 percent said they had never met their father, or had met him only in their teens or as adults.  The absence weighed heavily on these men’s minds. One father found it hard to talk about: it was a “touchy subject because it kind of makes my eyes swell up.” Another father said, “I remember periods of time … where I’m like, ‘Damn! Where’s my dad at? Where’s my dad at?’ My dad’s in prison or my dad’s in jail.”

Some fathers remember watching a parent or stepparent abuse drugs and alcohol, and the times that their dads beat their moms. They describe abuse at the hands of biological fathers and stepfathers. Most of the men remembered moms who were supportive and present, and some recalled grandmothers and aunts who took them in. But even one father whose mom worked hard to support the family recalled a childhood without much guidance: “So, TV raised us. The streets raised me. My mom had to work all the time. She was just there to beat my ass if she found out…. So my guidance was just nonexistent.”

In that void, almost a third of the fathers described joining gangs or selling drugs during their youth. One father recalls why he joined a gang: “My mother started doing drugs and my father was in jail so they [the gang] was my second home. They helped me when I needed help.” Another father put it this way: “I can’t lie, the streets will always embrace you. It will always be there. The streets never change.” One father said that “the streets, [and] all the guys in the gangs” served as his father figures.

The challenges they have had to overcome, from childhood onward, are astonishing.

Most of the men became fathers early in relationships, and relationships formed without much intention. One father remembers how he met the mother of his child: “She was walking home from school one day. It was raining. I told her I would give her a ride. We hooked up from there the next day. I went to go see her at her house. And then, a week later, I moved in with her.” Relationships were typically in flux. Even fathers in long-term relationships described their relationships as “on again, off again.”

Infidelity and distrust and abuse plague their relationships. Some fathers acknowledged that their own problems—substance abuse, infidelity, abuse, criminal behavior—contributed to problems in the relationships. But many also pointed to the mother of their children as being part of the problem. As one father said of his son’s mother, “Jeneice has some issues…. She has low self-esteem. She doesn’t think anybody can love her. She doesn’t think I truly care…and it sabotaged the relationship.”

They describe highly polarizing breakups. As a result, only about a third of the fathers said that they had an excellent or very good relationship with the mother of any of their children. And more than half of the nonresident fathers complained of gatekeeping behavior by the mothers of their children.

For most of these men, keeping up with child support becomes another challenge. Fifty-eight percent of the fathers had child support orders, and about two-thirds of those said that they owed back child support in amounts ranging from $1,000 to $100,000. Some fathers reported being ordered to pay child support even when in prison—which, of course, they couldn’t do. One father who owed $8,000 in child support called it “uninspiring” and said that he didn’t really see the point in working, because “whatever I produce I give up.” Moreover, some fathers who said they were paying child support said that the child’s mother sometimes threatened to restrict access to the child if the father failed to pay extra (for instance, for rent or utilities).

One father with multiple child support orders summed up the challenges facing him and his peers this way:

After child support is done, [I have only] $170. Now how am I supposed to pay rent? How am I supposed to live? How am I supposed to eat? How am I supposed to buy clothes, deodorant, soap? How am I supposed to get out here to stay clean enough to find a job, work, buy bus passes, stuff like that, how am I supposed to do that? They’re throwing felonies on us. They’re locking us up. They’re taking all of our money for child support but they’re not even investigating these women. Nine times out of 10, the women are not even letting us see the kids at all.

So why did these fathers voluntarily join a federally subsidized Responsible Fatherhood program? About 40 percent said that they joined the program because they wanted to be better fathers, and about 40 percent cited getting a job—or getting a better job—as a reason for joining.

However, only about 10 percent of fathers reported getting a job as a result of the program—many explain that criminal records make it difficult to find a job. Still, fathers said that the program helped them better understand what they needed to do to increase their chances of finding a good job. They also said it helps them to be better parents. For instance, one father said, “I’m more of a listener now; instead of ‘You better [do this or else],’ I actually listen to what they have to say now and compromise with them.” Some fathers who were accustomed to doling out frequent corporal punishment talked of learning better strategies for disciplining children.

But I thought the most intriguing response about why fathers wanted to participate was the solidarity and support from staff and other men in the program like them. One father described the other men in the program as “just some down-to-earth brothers that I respected.” This father pointed to a staff member he admired who had also been to prison, and since rebuilt his life. “I’m like, this man has been to prison but he’s sitting here teaching a class on parenting. I’m like, that just shows you the power of the human nature, our spirit.” A quarter of the fathers said that the groups they were a part of were the main reason they stayed in the program.

Another response from one father caught my eye: he joined the program, he said, because he was asking, “How can I give back to the community, helping other parents and helping myself?” Sometimes men who have suffered so much—and who feel like they have so much to atone for—just want another man to look them in the eye and let them know that they are not alone, that they can do this, and that they have something important to give the world.

Ideally, these programs exist so that clients of services can become contributors to their communities.

It reminds me of the Citizen Father Project, a very important community organizing initiative that Bill Doherty has been pioneering with disadvantaged fathers in a fathering program in Minnesota—in fact, the program is one of four from which fathers in this study were drawn. Doherty notes that the kind of fathers he encounters in the program are the kind of men “that Reagan-era conservatives in the United States scapegoated as the purveyors of social breakdown and that ‘60s liberals viewed as victims of forces beyond their control.”

But, Doherty says, “these men see themselves as neither scapegoats nor victims.” Groups of fathers that he has worked with say things like, “We have no ‘father backbone’ from our own fathers,” and “I am tired of being a statistic; I want to be part of the solution.” Doherty told me that one inspired father who had several children by several mothers approached each of the mothers and asked them for forgiveness for the ways in which he had wronged them. And now that same father tells other men in fathering programs that story.

The fathers profiled in this study can be part of the solution—they must be part of the solution. Yes, they need lots of support, and that’s what the programs are there for. But, ideally, the programs exist so that clients of services can become contributors to their communities. The very men who have inflicted so much violence in their communities and division in their families can become the community healers their neighborhoods need. They can be the ones to declare a peace in the gender wars. They can be the ones who tell a better story to the next generation about love and family and marriage. And if my taxpayer dollars, through the Responsible Fatherhood programs, can in some small way empower these fathers to get on that path, well, I say three cheers to that.