Punishing Fathers for Being Poor

A new book shows why the U.S. needs a different approach toward men who don’t pay child support.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act, a tough measure that made it a federal crime, punishable by up to two years in prison, to cross state lines to skip out on paying child support. The legislation had overwhelming congressional approval, sailing through the House of Representatives and passing the Senate by unanimous consent. With the backdrop of bipartisan momentum for “ending welfare as we know it,” Clinton summed up the then-conventional wisdom at the signing ceremony for the bill: “One of the main reasons single mothers go on welfare is that fathers have failed to meet their responsibilities to the children.” By forcing more dads to live up to their obligations, the thinking went, this legislation would save taxpayers money and encourage young men to think twice.

Lost and Found: Young Fathers
in the Age of Unwed Parenthood
by Paul Florsheim and David Moore
Oxford University Press, 432 pp.

This zeal for enforcement was rooted in long-standing, blanket assumptions around low-income fathers’ behavior and presumed moral failings. In 1965, the now-infamous “Moynihan Report,” authored by the late sociologist and senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, blamed the “breakdown of the Negro Family” for high rates of child poverty and welfare dependency in that community. And in 1986, a CBS special report titled The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America cemented the stereotype of the neglectful “hit-and-run” father. Hosted by none other than Bill Moyers, the show featured Timothy McSeed, a 26-year-old African American man who had fathered six children with four different women and seemingly showed no interest in supporting his offspring. As McSeed told Moyers, “[H]avin’ a baby, carrying a baby, that’s on her, you know.” Fathers like McSeed justified the hard-line stance of prominent conservative analysts such as Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation and former Secretary of Education William Bennett, who blamed low-income fathers for all manner of social ills.

As Bennett wrote in his 2001 book, Broken Hearth, “It is unmarried fathers who are missing in record numbers, who impregnate women and selfishly flee.” Moral judgments like these have since calcified into policy; even today, the federal government maintains a website with mug shots of “most wanted deadbeats,” along with cautionary profiles of those who’ve been caught.

Then, as now, it makes sense for the government to enforce child support payments from fathers who have the means to easily comply but still shirk their responsibility. For families who receive child support, it can represent a large share of their income and keep them out of poverty. 

But what about fathers who are themselves struggling with poverty? Only relatively recently have researchers begun challenging the view that low-income fathers are generally disinclined to support their kids—and that enforcement is the first and best response. Among these works is an important new volume by the scholars Paul Florsheim and David Moore, Lost and Found, that shows the complexities of low-income fatherhood and puts these dads in a far more sympathetic light. Significantly, the book reinforces growing concerns that “get-tough” policies can backfire for poor fathers, causing greater hardship for the children these efforts are intended to help. 

Mounting evidence shows that one of the main reasons child support goes unpaid today is inability to pay, not unwillingness. For instance, a 2019 report from the Abell Foundation found that “[n]early all parents who fall behind on child support payments have unstable employment and low earnings.” In fact, the study found, 90 percent of parents paying no child support at all either didn’t have year-round employment or were incarcerated. 

Scholars such as Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson have worked fiercely to portray low-income fathers with the nuance and compassion they deserve. Their 2013 book, Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, tracked more than 100 low-income unwed fathers over seven years to understand their situations. The authors found that these dads, far from uncaring, saw their children “not as millstones but as life preservers, saviors, redeemers.” Edin and Nelson’s work was also groundbreaking simply by being the first to methodically explore young fathers’ perspectives. While reams of research existed on the state of low-income moms and their kids, fathers had until then been largely absent from scholarly attention. Tenuous connections to their households made some of them difficult to find, but another reason for fathers’ invisibility is the lack of social programs targeted toward low-income men—safety net programs are skewed toward mothers and children. Thus, while researchers have relatively easy access to poor moms and kids through their contact with welfare offices, job training programs, and other social services, the equivalent set of supports is essentially nonexistent for low-income fathers. 

Only relatively recently have researchers begun challenging the view that low-income fathers are generally disinclined to support their kids—and that child support enforcement is the first and best response.

Lost and Found validates the foundational work of Edin and Nelson in challenging the simplistic notion that all deadbeat dads are uncaring. Florsheim and Moore offer plentiful proof that, far from being irresponsible, young fathers might care deeply about their children but are often faced with enormous obstacles. “[M]ost young fathers want to ‘be there’ for both their child and their child’s mother, including many who are not quite up to the task,” they write. Yet they also find that even fathers in the direst of circumstances can ultimately form constructive relationships with their children. “[S]ome young men appear to be at great risk for becoming bad fathers based on their family history, their social context, and their own behavior, but they end up doing much better than anyone could have expected,” they explain. What the authors explore are the factors—including the possible
interventions—that can tip the scales in favor of better parenting. 

Florsheim and Moore base their conclusions on impressive new research that forms the empirical core of Lost and Found. Florsheim, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and Moore, a professor at the University of Puget Sound, followed 500 young unwed couples in Salt Lake City and Chicago over five years, many from the moment they learned of their impending (and typically unplanned) parenthood. Their findings are qualitative, based on lengthy periodic interviews with each couple. The authors recruited the majority of these couples from prenatal clinics and schools for pregnant teens, which means they were a self-selected group and not necessarily representative of all young unwed parents. Still, Florsheim and Moore found that the young fathers they interviewed are generally nothing like Timothy McSeed. Much more typical is 17-year-old Robert: “I will be there if the baby needs me; I will be there no matter what it is. I won’t let nothing stop me from being there for my baby.” Extensive excerpts from these interviews provide the narrative backbone of the book, which tracks the experience of young fatherhood from excited expectation to turbulent reality. The authors also intersperse their data with research surveying Americans’ evolving understandings of fatherhood, especially as gender norms have changed. (Unlike the dads of the 1950s, for instance, today’s dads are expected to change diapers.) 

Through their interviews, Florsheim and Moore document the myriad challenges, twists, and turns that cause young fathers to falter, despite their initial best intentions. The financial pressures of raising a child without the benefit of higher education—or, in many cases, a high school diploma—are sometimes compounded by substance abuse, domestic violence, and incarceration. The authors, both clinical psychologists, make an important point about why the stresses of fatherhood are especially challenging for young adults: They are physiologically still children themselves. Contrary to prior theories of brain development as a process that mostly happens in early childhood, modern neuroscience finds that young adulthood is also crucial for the physical development of the brain, particularly the areas responsible for judgment, foresight, and analytical thinking. The lack of these capabilities results in immature parenting, marked by easy lapses into irritability, impatience, and a tendency toward physical or verbal harshness in disciplining.

Lost and Found adds valuable insights to what we know about low-income fatherhood and the right role for public policy. For instance, the authors emphasize the social and emotional support young dads provide—an aspect of fatherhood that Florsheim and Moore argue has been very much overlooked, if not outright dismissed. In particular, the authors say, policy makers’ focus on child support enforcement overplays the importance of fathers’ financial commitment and diminishes their role as caregivers. In fact, they argue, some of the biggest contributions dads can provide are not financial—even the poorest of fathers can play with their children, read to their children, and create the kind of stable, consistent, and secure environment kids need to thrive. Interestingly, a 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that among fathers of children under five, “[b]lack fathers (70%) [are] most likely to have bathed, dressed, diapered, or helped their children use the toilet every day compared with white (60%) and Hispanic fathers (45%).”

To make this point, the authors contrast two 18-year-old fathers, James and Eddie. While James works full-time and can support his child financially, he is harsh, controlling, and relatively unengaged. Eddie, though unemployed, serves as his child’s primary caregiver while his girlfriend works a minimum-wage job. “Eddie and James highlight the fact that men can fulfill their roles as fathers in very different ways,” Florsheim and Moore write. This fluidity in what it means to be a “good” father provides useful balance to a policy conversation that’s been so far singularly focused on making dads pay up. 

In that vein, Florsheim and Moore also offer a useful critique of the “responsible fatherhood” programs propagated under President George W. Bush’s administration, many of which followed the paradigm of child support enforcement paired with job support—a strategy that proved largely ineffective. “Twenty years and about one billion dollars later, there is little evidence that these programs had much of an impact on any of the criteria by which the federal government was defining ‘responsible fatherhood,’ including job stability, increased earnings, or more child support payments,” the authors write. For instance, one study found that participants in one of these programs, called Parents’ Fair Share, actually ended up earning less money and paying less in child support than the fathers who didn’t participate.

Florsheim and Moore correctly note that the government investment in these programs at the time was driven by ideology, without the benefit of evidence or appropriate research. The government, they say, “tended to fund programs that lack both the expertise and the infrastructure required to provide unskilled men with the sort of training and support they needed to access and keep good jobs that could pull them out of poverty.” 

A further flaw in these programs was a pair of rules that discouraged fathers from participating and potentially punished them if they did. The first rule was that mothers couldn’t enroll without also agreeing to help enroll the father in child support. The second was that fathers couldn’t enroll in government job programs without also agreeing to pay child support through the state. As Florsheim and Moore write, “Many fathers do the math and quickly realize this arrangement offers little for themselves, their partners or their children. . . . If a father signs up and is assessed for child support and then fails to pay what is owed, including back payments, he is in jeopardy of going to jail for failure to pay.”

The goal of these rules was to prevent families from “double dipping”—receiving both welfare and child support. But as Florsheim and Moore point out, these rules make sense only if the fathers in question are earning a decent living. “The problem—and it’s a big one—is that requiring economically disadvantaged fathers to pay the government back for supporting their economically disadvantaged families has the effect of penalizing the poor for trying to pull themselves out of poverty,” they write. The worst impacts, however, come when the state tries to enforce payment obligations against fathers who simply don’t have the money. Garnishing a poor father’s wages to “reimburse” Medicaid for childbirth expenses often means directing money to the government that would have been spent directly on supporting the child. Putting a dad in prison for failing to pay child support guarantees that he won’t be earning wages (and thus won’t be paying child support). 

Florsheim and Moore don’t argue, however, that government should do away with its enforcement efforts. Indeed, fathers with means who shirk their duties deserve no quarter. Rather, the authors argue that paying child support shouldn’t be the only measure of “responsible” fatherhood that public policy recognizes. What they propose is that it should also be okay for fathers to be like Eddie, who isn’t directly contributing to the material support of his child but is nonetheless providing the kind of safe and loving environment his child needs, as well as the support his girlfriend needs so she can work. 

In particular, Florsheim and Moore propose more interventions to help young dads develop “co-parenting” skills to help establish an early bond with their child, ease their transition to fatherhood, and facilitate couples’ communication, even if they don’t ultimately stay together. For example, the authors propose what they call universal “prenatal care for men,” which are essentially mental health services designed to prepare young men for fatherhood in the same way that prenatal classes are available for expectant moms. The authors also discuss the Young Parenthood Project, an intervention they designed as a result of their research aimed at improving couples’ communication and conflict-resolution skills.

A few small criticisms mar this generally impressive work. The first is that the narrative sometimes takes an overly clinical tone, with lengthy block quotes that might be challenging for lay readers and that have the effect of underplaying the deeply emotional content of these interviews. Second, while there is a chapter on lack of access to contraception, the authors are silent on the topic of long-acting contraceptives, which have been shown to be the most effective way to prevent unplanned pregnancies. 

These critiques, however, are minor. Florsheim and Moore have produced an impressive piece of work that greatly deepens our understanding of what it means to be a low-income father and the challenges they face. The authors call for a new paradigm, one that makes room for compassion and empathy, not just punishment and blame. Policy makers would do well to adopt this framework—both for the benefit of young fathers and for the welfare of their children.

Support the Washington Monthly and get a FREE subscription

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection.