- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2003

A 25-year-old father struggles to keep up a good relationship with his 5-year-old daughter. Each weekend, he leaves the public housing complex where he lives in Roanoke to visit his daughter at her mother’s home. When he gets there, he sings songs with her, helps her practice her ABCs or takes her to visit relatives.

Like many noncustodial fathers, he has overdue child support payments. But he is no “deadbeat dad.” In addition to sharing a loving relationship with his daughter, he desperately tries to earn enough money to make his child-support payments. Unfortunately, while he was working for a local housekeeping company in the spring of 2002, his mother had knee surgery and required his care. Because his job didn’t provide time off, he was forced to quit. His child-support bills began to mount, and in September the Commonwealth of Virginia sentenced him to 30 days in jail for overdue support.

When he got out of jail, the young father found a short-term job at an auto repair shop. When that ended, he signed up with a temporary employment agency so that he could be assigned to jobs that provide frequent paychecks — and the chance to stay out of jail. None of these jobs has offered benefits or opportunities for permanent employment. In addition, Virginia has suspended his driver’s license for not paying support, severely limiting his job options.

With only a high school degree and a limited work history, he is like millions of young men who are forced into jobs that offer low pay, no benefits and little opportunity for advancement. Such limited options keep these fathers — many of whom are unmarried — from being the dependable child-support providers and caregivers that they would like to be.

Stories of such men are not rare. Indeed, research demonstrates that there are many who share his plight.

First, single fathers face many of the same obstacles as single mothers, but are much less likely to receive needed services. In 2001, the Urban Institute reported that low-income, noncustodial fathers suffer from similarly low levels of educational attainment and high levels of unemployment as their female counterparts. Despite the similarities of the two, far fewer noncustodial fathers benefit from government-sponsored education or job-training programs. The most recent study of federally funded job programs found that only 4 percent of low-income, noncustodial fathers had received job training or GED classes, compared with 19 percent of low-income mothers.

Research by the Center for Law and Social Policy shows that some laws meant to help families have the unintended effect of alienating fathers. The most obvious case of this lies with the child-support system, which allows states to charge high rates of interest on overdue payments — often sinking low-income fathers into thousands of dollars in debt. In California, for example, child-support officials often set support orders without first determining fathers’ incomes — or even whether they are working. Rather than trying to maintain relationships with their children, many low-income fathers stop trying altogether, abandoning both their financial responsibilities and their children.

What makes this abandonment even more unsettling are results from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a joint project of Princeton and Columbia universities. The project is studying poor, unwed parents and their children in 20 cities over a five-year period beginning at the birth of their children. The study’s results so far strongly contradict the stereotypes about low-income unmarried fathers. Researchers found the new fathers want to be involved in their children’s lives and support their new families. Clearly, many fathers end up not paying child support not because they don’t want to, but because they lack sufficient skills to earn the money to do so.

And more recent research specifically demonstrates the obstacles that low-income fathers face in paying child support. A new report from the Social Policy Action Network examined what happens when noncustodial fathers in four cities — Austin, Tex.; Columbus, Ohio; Minneapolis; and Philadelphia — tried to get the services they needed to nurture and support their families.

The report found that caseworkers in many social services agencies don’t think of fathers as their clients. Although they frequently inform and refer women to available services, caseworkers rarely considered doing so for men. In part, this stemmed from lack of training on how to work with men. Many front-line workers don’t view fathers as members of the families they serve, but as the cause of their families’ problems.

The report also found a widespread mistrust of government among low-income fathers. In some cases, these feelings are warranted. One father in the study told researchers that he was jailed for not paying child support soon after he started a new job; the state had checked the Social Security numbers of newly hired employees against a database of those who owed child support. Instead of being able to support his children, he went to jail.

The study also highlighted an additional barrier faced by these fathers. In many cases, private-sector employers are reluctant to hire low-income men — especially men of color. Employers actively screen out these men through credit checks, criminal background checks, literacy requirements and the GED test — regardless of the skills needed for the jobs they are seeking.

In reality, some fathers do not assume responsibility and must be compelled to support their children. But for those fathers who want to support their families, giving them a chance would be well worth the investment. If the changing makeup of our nation’s families has taught us anything, it is that the fathers’ absences can be devastating for children. Census figures report that the 23 million children who live without their biological fathers are nearly three times more likely to grow up in poverty.

The non-economic costs of fathers’ absence may be even more serious: Children raised without fathers at home are more likely to engage in alcohol use, drug use and sexual activity at a young age, and are less likely to do well in school. Conversely, children whose fathers engage in their lives benefit immensely; they are more likely to have high self-esteem, be better learners and be less likely to be depressed.

All of these facts point to the need for some incentives for states and communities to work with fathers. Politicians of both parties have promised their support for “responsible fatherhood,” often in combination with efforts to promote healthy marriages. The House of Representatives included in its version of welfare $20 million in funding for service projects and demonstration projects to help noncustodial parents get the jobs and parenting skills needed to be good fathers.

The Senate has the opportunity to further fulfill these promises to promote responsible fatherhood. When it reauthorizes welfare reform, the Senate should allow states to count the work of fathers who are paying child support toward welfare’s work requirements for families.

In addition, it should eliminate the current law’s separate, higher work-participation rate for two-parent families because that discourages states from providing help to such families.

Since 1996, millions of former welfare mothers have left the rolls and begun working. But while they have left welfare behind, they have not escaped poverty. Children who grow up with two parents working have the best chance of escaping poverty.

Kathleen Sylvester and Jonathan O’Connell are director and policy associate at the Social Policy Action Network.

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