The Myth of the “Deadbeat Dad”

According to the popular wisdom, few social pariahs are more worthy of harsh condemnation than the deadbeat dad — the able bodied man, who, having had his fun, abandons his responsibilities. And the numbers of men who pay little or no child support always appear eye popping. In 2011, men made only 61% of child support payments to the mothers of their children.

Like all convention wisdom, however, reality is more complicated. For one, according to Census reports, in 2011 about the same percentage of moms who didn’t live with their kids paid all the child support they owed as dads who didn’t. “Deadbeat dad” carries effective connotation of fathers who abandon responsibility to their kids and don’t care about them at all. That is not usually the case.

Fathers who did not visit their kids gave only about half as much in-kind support as those who spent at least 10 hours a month with them.

Fathers who did not visit their kids gave only about half as much in-kind support as those who spent at least 10 hours a month with them.

New research suggests that baby dads are not as useless as the numbers and their popular image implies. A study, which appeared in June 2015 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, finds that many fathers who do not pay child support in cash nevertheless make a significant contribution in kind. Almost half of the fathers in the study who were cash-poor nevertheless tried to contribute in other ways—providing baby products, clothing, school expenses and food—worth an average of $60 a month.

“The most disadvantaged dads end up looking like they’re completely distanced from their kids but they’re actually giving quite a lot,” says Kathryn Edin, one of the authors and a sociologist and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg Distinguished Professor. “I was really surprised by how much these disadvantaged guys, these truly marginally employed men, are putting all of this thought and what little resources they have into showing their children that they care.”

Of the 367 lower income, noncustodial dads studied in three different cities, only 23% gave what the courts would recognize as child-support through the system, but 46% contributed in-kind support and 28% gave cash straight to the mom, says the study, which is the first to look specifically at the more informal ways dads try to look after their kids. Sixty-six of the dads, who were considered the full-on deadbeat because they gave no cash support to the 95 children they fathered, gave $63 per child a month through in-kind support, which does not appear in the statistics.

Edin and her husband Timothy J. Nelson, are the authors of Doing the Best I Can, which studies about inner city fatherhood. She may be one of the nation’s foremost experts on non-custodial fathers and is certainly one of the group’s strongest female defenders.

The current system of child support payments often leads mothers to deny fathers access to their children until they have paid what they owe, thus souring the relationship between all three. Fathers who did not visit their kids gave only about half as much in-kind support as those who spent at least 10 hours a month with them.

Fathers prefer to buy goods for their children rather than give money to the kids’ mothers because they get more recognition for these acts of bonding, says Edin. “We need to respect what these guys are doing, linking love and provision in a way that’s meaningful to the child. The child support system weakens the child/father bond by separating the act of love from the act of providing.”

Most of the fathers stained as deadbeats are not dads unwilling to support their children; they are simply unable to afford the child support, according to Joseph E. Cordell
 of Cordell and Cordell.

The 66 percent of all child support not paid by fathers is due to an inability to come up with the money, according to a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office Report. Calling all the dads who miss payments “deadbeats” paints with far too broad of a brush.

However, because of the way custody orders often work out, many of these fathers rarely get the opportunity to see their children while some don’t get to see them at all. Despite how they may feel, these loving fathers are stigmatized as deadbeats — regardless of why they missed the payments.

The problem becomes further complicated by harsh laws and punishments enacted on those unable to come up with the money. If a father fails behind on his payments, the state or child support agency does anything to collect the arrearage, including garnishing wages, intercepting their income tax refund, or suspending his driver’s license.

If a father gets too far behind and these methods fail, the father (who in many states is not provided an attorney because the case is civil, not criminal) face up to one year in jail simply because he is too poor to afford the payments. Lacking the money to pay child support all but guarantees the father cannot afford legal counsel on his own, leaving him to the mercy of an unrelenting court system that looks down on him as a horrible person worthy of the punishment it inflicts.

This vicious treatment creates a modern-day debtor’s prison for destitute dads who are more often than not perfectly willing to pay their support if they had sufficient funds. A downward spiral: unable to pay their support, perhaps because they lost their job, so they are thrown in jail. They still won’t have a job when they get out, but are required to make payments they can’t afford, so they are thrown back into jail.

No matter how they try, impoverished fathers are not able to get back on their feet because the state continues to kneecap them. Society and the courts scrutinize them as “deadbeats” and unloving fathers who have essentially abandoned taking care of their children, but frequently the unforgiving system swallows them in the first place.

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