The Material Support Of “Deadbeat” Dads

by Ravindra Krishnamurthy

Though it is currently unacknowledged in any government surveys or statistics, a new study reveals that a large number of low-income nonresident fathers, often labeled as “deadbeat dads,” spend as much on their children as parents in formal child-support arrangement, but prefer to support by providing provisions like food and clothes rather than cash.

The study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family brings to light that not only is in-kind support common, but it may also be the preferred mode of support among low-income families. Also in these families, in-kind contributions are as valuable to the mother or child as is the cash paid through the formal system or informal support.

For the study, sociologists from John Hopkins University and University of North Carolina tracked the value of formal, informal, and in-kind support among 313 low-income non-custodial fathers living in Austin, Philadelphia, and Charleston. The chosen fathers reported a total of 522 children with age ranging from 6 months to 18 years. Through several semi-structured interviews, qualitative and quantitative information about how these non-custodial fathers provided support for their children were obtained.

According to the study’s findings, in-kind support amounts to more than a quarter of total support provided to nonresident children and nearly half (46%) of all the low-income fathers considered for the study provided in-kind support, which was more than that through formal court system (23 percent), and informal arrangements (28%) with the mother. Children receiving in-kind support obtained goods worth of $60 per month, while those under the formal ($53 per month) and informal ($40 per month) arrangements received support of lesser value.

Furthermore, a subgroup within in-kind providing fathers who avoided cash payments altogether, provided goods worth of $63 per child per month. If the total value of support provided by fathers avoiding the formal system altogether (only informal cash and in-kind goods) is added up, it amounts roughly to $175 per child per month. This point to the fact that, children of low-income parents, who consciously avoid the court systems, stand to gain a substantial amount economically, either directly via goods or indirectly via cash provided to the household.

Researchers observed that the total amount spent by non-resident fathers on in-kind goods is non-trivial and comes mostly in the form of gifts (Christmas, birthday, other) followed by clothes, diapers, shoes, food and groceries. Other notable contributions include school expenses (school trips, school uniforms, school supplies, and afterschool program costs), childcare tuition expenses, and medical expenses.

These fathers consciously pick those items which could be offered directly to the child such as food treats, or highly visible items such as clothes, shoes and special toys. Some of these purchases were quite costly: designer jeans, expensive tennis shoes, or a pricey video game, etc. Men with young children made contributions by providing baby products such as diapers, formula, strollers, cribs, or payments to a child care provider.

Researchers noticed that the total monthly in-kind support varies with the level of visitation. Fathers who do not visit their child contribute on average, goods worth $48, while those visiting less than 10 hours per month offer goods amounting to $35 and fathers visiting 10+ hours per month offer highest, with goods worth $84. In addition, the proportion of total support provided in-kind is also highest among those visiting 10+ hours (44%). This clearly brings out the fact that paying in-kind and visiting is positively related.

Interestingly, the percent of total support given in-kind varies significantly with the status of father-mother relationship, with the total monthly in-kind support remaining more or less same. Fathers involved romantically with the mother provide 52% of their total support through in-kind and this proportion drops to 36% in cases where the parents relationship is non-romantic.

Another notable finding is that the value of in-kind support varies with the child’s age. Younger children received in-kind support of greater value than older children. Kids below five years old received the highest, averaging $78, while children in the age group of 5–9 years received $51 and those above 10 years received $41 worth of in-kind support.

In addition, total number of nonresident children the father had also mattered. Total in-kind support is $49 among fathers with three or more children, while it is $80 among fathers with one nonresident child.

The amount of in-kind support is lower among fathers above 30 years and those involved in drug or alcohol abuse or those with criminal record. Also, the amount spend through in-kind support didn’t vary with race, but was observed to be higher among the black fathers (44%) as compared to non-black fathers (35%).

Qualitative analysis reveals that fathers strongly prefer their contributions to feel relational rather than financial. Their main concern lies with the bond their contributions can forge with their child; they are less anxious about paying their fair share of the expenses the mother incurs for food, shelter and other household needs.

Researchers say that these poor fathers explicitly try to use their in-kind contributions to repair, bolster, and insure the future connections with their child. This fundamental priority shapes both the form of support they provide as well as the content of their in-kind contributions. This logic is in play from the time their children are babies, but is especially evident during middle childhood and the adolescent years.

The most economically disadvantaged men explicitly resist handing over the cash directly to mother. In some cases, this is mainly due to lack of trust in their ex-partner to use the money wisely, but on most occasions, it is due to the fear that such contributions will earn them little or nothing in the eyes of their children.

Till date, child support provided in-kind has remained invisible to courts and policymakers. Researchers strongly reckon that in-kind support should be given due recognition and credit in the governments child support policies. They feel that if fathers can successfully gain improved relationships with their children through the provision of in-kind goods, then it may be in the best interests of the child, the child’s mother, and the state to credit in-kind payments so as to keep fathers engaged over the longer course, even though these contributions may not fully commensurate with formal support.

Ravindra Krishnamurthy is a freelance science writer covering science, tech, environment, health, food and culture. His articles have appeared in permaculturenews (Australia) and Earth Island Journal (US). For published articles please visit his portfolio.

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