As the population of the United States shifted from rural, agrarian, or farming living arrangements to those of more urban and industrial conditions starting in the middle of the 19th century, men saw their role as parent transformed by employment demands that pulled them away from the home. Instead of holding a central role as instructor and instiller of core knowledge such as social norms and spiritual beliefs—tasks allowing great contact with one’s children—a father’s role has become more synonymous with the more distant role of absent provider for the family. Despite holding significant income advantages over mothers, fathers have lost much of the power to interact with—and therefore influence—their children on a daily basis.
Current American families reflect a much larger diversity in makeup or constellation compared with families of the past, as a result of higher rates of divorce and separation. Approximately half of all first marriages end in divorce, with rates exceeding 67% for second and third marriages. Many expectant parents decide not to marry. Indeed, 31.2% of today’s custodial mothers have never been married. According to 2002 U.S. Census data, approximately 13.4 million custodial parents had custody of 21.5 million dependents under age 21 years in 2002. Approximately five of six (84.4%) of these custodial parents are mothers, a proportion that has appeared stable for approximately one decade.
In many ways, a troubling characteristic of the contemporary family overall is that fathers are more likely to be rather absent from their children’s lives than in previous times. Although every father likely struggles to enhance his presence in his child’s life, some fathers actively choose to minimize or terminate their support of their dependent offspring. Studies suggest that many of these decisions by fathers to terminate relationships with their children occur as a collateral effect of conflict or disengagement with their children’s mother. A “deadbeat dad” can be defined as a form of child abandonment in which an absentee or nonresident father worsens his child’s living conditions by withholding his financial support, physical contact, and psychological, intellectual, and cultural tutelage. Earlier investigations of deadbeat dads in the literature focused predominantly on the financial support provided by noncustodial fathers, while later studies have explored the other facets of such an absent father.
In the United States in 2002, approximately 7.1 million out of 11.3 million custodial mothers (63%) were court awarded child support, with awards averaging $5,138 annually. Even more startling is that the amounts of child support actually received in 2002 averaged only $3,192 annually—a mere 62% of the awards granted. Roughly 4.6 million mothers (74.7%) received some support, and less than half (2.8 million; 45.4%) received all of their awarded support. As evidence of the value of establishing and maintaining child support agreements, custodial parents who received all of the child support due to them in 2002 were less likely (14.6%) to have poverty-level annual income than were parents who received only some or none of their expected child support. Parental involvement of the father, as measured by father visitation, has been found to be positively associated with the provision of child support.
Despite the emphasis of financial responsibility within the discussion of deadbeat dads, children appear to need far more than money from their fathers to promote and facilitate successful adjustment and development. Children who share healthy relationships with their fathers display a reduced likelihood of parenting at an early age, abusing substances, or being declared a juvenile delinquent and have a greater probability of earning their high school diploma. Yet, this relationship is not explained merely by quantity of contact between father and child. A great body of literature suggests that a father’s ability to be emotionally connected with his child, his provision of financial support, and his direct interaction with his child contribute to his child’s cognitive competence, academic achievement, social competence, impulse control, and self-esteem. As a result of this foundation of developed characteristics, a child then is less likely to engage in delinquent behavior or to become involved with destructive peer groups.
Approaches To The Problem
The initial approach to the complex problems created through the absence of deadbeat dads was that of child support enforcement. The federal government created the Child Support Enforcement Program in 1975 after a correlation was established between claims for public assistance or welfare by custodial parents and the nonpayment of child support by the affiliated noncustodial parent. When this program failed to increase payment rates adequately, custodial parents and their children continued to rely on federal and state financial assistance. In 1984, federal legislation ordered state and local governments to enforce access and visitation rights for noncustodial fathers in a manner that complemented efforts to gather child support payments. In 1996, the Federal Welfare Reform Act included a mandate for states to pursue child support from nonpaying parents when a custodial parent seeks state financial assistance. The program allowed for the seizing of wages of nonpaying fathers. Individual states have developed creative ways to track the employment of fathers and to garner their future salaries for appropriate child support payments. Even deception has been used as a tool to arrest non-paying fathers who successfully avoid or disregard other legal attempts to recoup unpaid support. Examples of deception uses include contacting fathers about false winnings of a sweepstakes or sporting event tickets, then arresting them when they show to collect their “rewards.”
Issues related to the collection of child support from deadbeat dads are the employability and job retention of those fathers. Recent studies find that fathers are often connected with their children at birth and report a desire to support and father their children. However, many fathers who fall into the “deadbeat” category are “dead broke” young men with low literacy rates and poor work histories. Reviews focusing on teenage fathers report child support collection rates of only 13% nationally, significantly lower than overall rates. Low average wages amplify the limited ability of young fathers to financially support children. Successful child support enforcement or enhancement interventions, based on informative exploratory efforts such as the Parents’ Fair Share (1988–1996) and the Young Unwed Fathers Project (1992–1994), focus beyond mere child support payment collection and help fathers to develop basic employment skills, including job search techniques, résumé writing, communication skills, and vocational training.
Other intervention methods have focused on improving men’s ability to nurturantly provide for their children’s psychological needs. Peer support groups and psychoeducation sessions allow for the attainment of basic parenting skills, such as relationship building, child development concepts, anger management, and life skills training. Often it is helpful to include discussions about cooperative parenting to enable fathers to better interact with their child’s mother to allow the child an opportunity to experience both parents in a less combative environment. On a larger scale, media campaigns and public education efforts, such as those provided through the Fatherhood Project and the National Center for Fathering, have attempted to provide a broader redefinition of fatherhood that allows for greater nurturance and involvement with children.
As a preventive approach, many interventions that focus on reducing teenage pregnancies are broadening in scope from the emphasis on young women to focus on young men and include discussions of fathers’ financial and other obligations. Based on early projects such as the Teen Fathers Collaboration (1983–1985), these programs attempt to reduce underage parenting by moving from issues related to sexual behavior and contraception to the range of responsibilities carried by parents, especially young men. This enhanced message, whether received via such preventive efforts or by other means, appears to be making a difference among adolescents. Among male teenagers, approximately 50% reported no sexual intercourse in 2001, compared with 39% in 1990. Teenage pregnancies have decreased from 116.9 out of every 1,000 girls in 1990 to 83.6 per 1000 girls in 2000, with such a trend consistent across race and ethnicity groups in the United States. Although many factors may contribute to these notable trends, discussions regarding parental responsibilities may continue to provide teenagers with the rationale necessary to make adaptive early decisions regarding sexual activity.
The promotion of healthy marriages is another avenue of prevention that has been applied to the topic of deadbeat dads. In an era of “no-fault” divorce, higher rates of dissolved marriages result in higher requests for government subsidies that typically fail to fully support a family. Many of these marriage focused projects are church based and assume that responsible fathering is more likely to occur within the context of a marriage. Specific programs, including premarital counseling, prebirth parenting classes, and conflict resolution psychoeducation classes, appear to help decrease the likelihood of divorce among high-risk couples, and do result in higher annual incomes for families with children. Key factors affecting child outcomes include the qualities of the father-mother and father-child relationships within such sustained marriages. For men who have distanced from the mothers of their children, it may be more difficult to overcome unresolved issues between unwed fathers and mothers. The Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization and similar projects assert that once a man’s heart is turned toward his children and their mother, even a successful marriage is possible.
The birth of one’s child is an event that every father should be allowed to celebrate. Helping more men to see the wisdom in waiting to parent until they are economically and emotionally ready adults, to view their potential influence of their children via fathering as irreplaceable, and to see themselves as equal partners with their children’s mothers in the rearing and support of their offspring will make the development of deadbeat dads less likely events.
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- National Fatherhood Initiative, http://www.forg
- National Latino Fatherhood and Family Initiative, http://www.nlfforg
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- S. Census Bureau. (2003). Custodial mothers and fathers and their child support: 2001. Washington, DC: Author.
- S. Department of Health and Human Services.Administration for Children and Families, Office of Child Support Enforcement. (n.d.). State and local IV-D agencies on the WEB. Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cse/extinf.htm#exta
- Wineburgh, A. (2000). Treatment of children with absent fathers. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 17,255–273.