Taking care of business: The economic survival strategies of low-income, noncustodial fathers

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As states try to figure out how to implement time-limited welfare without disadvantaging millions of poor single women and children, their focus increasingly turns to noncustodial fathers. Many federal lawmakers and private foundations seem convinced that fathers must be economically reconnected with their families for welfare reform to work. In 1998, Clay Shaw, one of the authors of the welfare reform law, sponsored legislation to increase federal spending on education and training programs for noncustodial fathers. Dozens of private foundations also are funding work and training programs for men in this group. Several states are planning to spend millions of their "welfare-to-work" dollars (the $3 billion in federal funds set aside to help the most "hard to serve" families) on programs aimed at reconnecting fathers with families. This chapter explores the economic lives of 125 low-income, noncustodial fathers whom we interviewed in-depth just as the new welfare law was being implemented (between 1996 and 1998). The media often portrays such men as irresponsible deadbeats who ignore their responsibilities to the children they father. These portrayals remain largely unchallenged, perhaps partly because surveys tend to underrepresent such men. Garfinkel, McLanahan, and Hanson (1998) have estimated that as many as 40 percent of all noncustodial fathers are missing from some surveys. Furthermore, they claim that no survey is free of large underrepresentation problems. They argue that roughly one half of the underrepresentation is due to the fact that some noncustodial fathers are missing from the survey, and the other half is due to the fact that some men surveyed do not admit that they are noncustodial fathers (whether from avarice or ignorance). Underrepresentation is particularly acute for noncustodial fathers at the low end of the income distribution, the group on which our study focuses. The undercount is more severe for black noncustodial fathers than for their white counterparts (43 percent versus 70 percent) and for men without a high school diploma than for men with a high school degree (48 percent versus 84 percent). The problem also is greater for fathers of nonmarital children than for those who married their child's mother (48 percent versus 78 percent). Lowincome fathers are more likely to be minorities, less likely to have a high school diploma, and more likely to have children outside of marriage. Thus lowincome, noncustodial fathers are much more likely to be missing from surveys than more affluent fathers (McLanahan et al. 2001). Based on our research, this is not surprising. Many of the low-income, noncustodial fathers in the cities and neighborhoods we studied often shift residence, experience bouts of homelessness, or do not reside permanently in any one household. Since many surveys are household based, these fathers are easily missed because of their residential instability. Our research revealed other potential problems for survey researchers as well. Some fathers we spoke to are evading child support orders or are on the run from the law for other reasons. Others are engaged in crime for a living. Fathers in any of these situations would be less likely to participate in a survey than fathers in more conventional situations because they probably fear talking to anyone who is a stranger or looks "official." Thus the portrait we present in this chapter is one of a group of fathers that social science has not been able to describe reliably. By employing ethnographic fieldwork techniques that promote trust between researcher and subject, we were able to identify a large and heterogeneous group of low-income noncustodial fathers across two large metropolitan areas (Austin, Texas, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). Through in-depth semistructured interviews with these fathers, we elicited detailed portraits of the day-to-day economic realities they face, gathered accounts of their own assessment of their ability to participate economically and emotionally in their children's lives, and descriptions of their actual fathering behavior. The men spoke of their feelings about themselves as fathers as well as the importance that being a father played in their larger life experiences. Our research with low-income noncustodial fathers of African American, Latin, and European descent parallels earlier work two of us conducted with 379 low-income single mothers in four U.S. cities in the early 1990s (Edin and Lein 1997a, 1997b). In-depth, repeated interviews with these mothers showed that welfare recipients and low-wage working mothers both faced large budget shortfalls each month and routinely exposed their children to material hardship. From mothers, we learned that noncustodial fathers often made significant (although often covert) cash contributions to mothers' households. Though most mothers generated side income through a number of different channels, men provided the largest share of mothers' supplemental income. Mothers' reports suggest that mothers recognize the difficulties their children's fathers face: how to eke out a subsistence living at the low end of the labor market; how to maintain a relationship with children for whom one does not assume either day-to-day emotional or financial responsibility; how to maintain self-respect through periods of incarceration, incapacitation, and unemployment; how to resist the lure of the drug economy when other work opportunities are scarce; how to resist the lure of drugs and alcohol; and how to avoid street violence. Though mothers said they understood fathers' circumstances, most still insisted that consistent financial support was a prerequisite for an ongoing relationship between a father and his children. These data, however, were drawn solely from mothers' reports of fathers' behavior, not fathers' descriptions of their own behavior. In this research, our goal was to understand the story from the father's point of view.

Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationLaboring Below The Line
Subtitle of host publicationThe New Ethnography of Poverty, Low-Wage Work, and Survival in the Global Economy
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages23
ISBN (Print)0871546175, 9780871546197
StatePublished - 2007
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences

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