As barbecue kits and ties are unwrapped by dads in households nationwide today, it’s important to remember that a lot of kids don’t have a father they can celebrate. I should know — I was one of those kids.
But I also know there are a lot of single moms and surrogate father figures — friends, teachers, relatives, godparents — working hard to fill the void. So let’s make this Father’s Day about them too. Better yet, let’s become stand-in dads.
With one in three kids in America not living with their fathers, according to U.S. census data from 2012, it isn’t enough to celebrate the responsible people in our communities doing right by our kids. We need to help pick up the slack, as a society and as individuals.
For me, the man I think about on Father’s Day is my mom’s dad, Abraham Rice. Known by his friends as Manny, my grandpa was a first-generation American and the youngest of 16 kids. Some of my most cherished memories are of hanging out with him and my uncles. Over lunch, they talked politics, business and family, and they included me in the conversation like I was an adult, an equal — even when I was just 7 years old. I’m not sure where — or who — I’d be today if it weren’t for my grandpa. I was incredibly lucky to have had him in my life.
But many kids aren’t as fortunate. In our country, having a decent childhood should not depend upon the circumstances of our birth. Nearly half of kids who grow up without their fathers also grow up in poverty. A staggering three out of four American families don’t have enough to cope with a $700 emergency. For a single mom, a busted tire could mean a lost job. A few hundred bucks could be the difference between hanging on or falling apart. This kind of economic strain doesn’t just make life difficult, it chips away at people’s humanity. In our society, the chance to live your fullest life isn’t supposed to come down to luck of the draw.
One of the best tools we have to help families is the Earned Income Tax Credit. While many have heard of the EITC, not a lot of people know quite how it works. Despite its clunky name, this simple and effective program provides a cash-back tax credit to parents who work hard but earn a low income. It’s a rare program that gets broad, bipartisan support. Most importantly, it has brought more honor to the hard work of tens of millions of families and, again, I should know — my family used the EITC when I was in high school.
The EITC does have a drawback. To claim it, you have to list it on your tax return, and around 20 percent of people who qualify don’t get it because they don’t know they’re eligible for it. Or, they don’t earn enough to have to file taxes. I started a nonprofit program in California called CalEITC4Me to ensure that all families in my native California who qualify for the state tax credit — nearly a third of them are single-parent households — get the support they need. Together, we’ve helped nearly 1.5 million people, including more than 1 million children, claim the state EITC.
This work is just one of the ways I honor my grandfather and help some children who weren’t lucky enough to have a grandpa like mine. But it isn’t just big initiatives that can have a huge impact on someone’s life. I also volunteer at Casa Teresa, a center that provides help to pregnant women, many of whom have no dad in their lives. I lead a small class on things like household budgets, where I get to pay forward some of the life skills I was fortunate enough to learn from my mom and grandfather.
We can all find ways to pitch in. In your community, your neighborhood or even in your building, there are people who could use your help. I know how much it can mean to someone. When my grandpa died, my Uncle Seymour told me, “You lost a real friend.” I remember exactly how those words echoed in my mind when I heard them. Because they were true. I remember the deep, lonely feeling that hit me the moment I learned my grandpa had passed away. I had lost my truest friend.
When we weren’t out getting lunch, my favorite thing was to play catch in the street with my grandpa. It wasn’t just fun; it made me feel truly happy and valued.
One of the classic American images is a kid playing ball with his dad. But it doesn’t have to be his dad. It can be anyone. It can be you.
So let’s make Father’s Day a day to honor the people who step up for missing dads — and a day when all the responsible men in this country commit to doing something for all the kids who need us.