Why ‘deadbeat’ dads may deserve more credit

"These dads are purchasing a relationship with their children," says Kathryn Edin. "They want their kids to look down at their feet and say, 'My dad cares about me because he bought me these shoes.'" (Credit: iStockphoto)

The results of a new study on “deadbeat dads” suggest that the stereotype might be more myth than reality.

Low-income fathers who don’t pay cash child-support may well provide food, clothes, and other tangible items worth even more, report researchers.

“The most disadvantaged dads end up looking like they’re completely distanced from their kids, but they’re actually giving quite a lot,” Johns Hopkins University sociologist Kathryn Edin says.

“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.”

dad support graphic
(Credit: Johns Hopkins)

Love and money

The study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, looks at 367 low-income dads in Philadelphia; Austin, Texas; and Charleston, South Carolina, who did not have child custody. Those providing in-kind support gave their kids an average of $60 a month worth of provisions, while dads paying formal child support spent about $38 a month.

Fathers see giving tangible items as better for bonding with their children than handing over cash to the mothers, the researchers found.

“These dads are purchasing a relationship with their children,” Edin says. “They want their kids to look down at their feet and say, ‘My dad cares about me because he bought me these shoes.'”

The dads are trying to link love with money, she says. In-kind support included items like baby products (diapers, formula, strollers, and cribs), clothing, shoes, school expenses, school supplies, after-school program costs, gifts, and food.

“We need to respect what these guys are doing, linking love and provision in a way that’s meaningful to the child,” Edin says. “The child-support system weakens the child/father bond by separating the act of love from the act of providing.”

Technically ‘deadbeat’

Though some fathers combined in-kind support with either court-ordered or informal cash support, 66 dads in the study (with 95 children) avoided cash payments altogether; they would traditionally be considered “deadbeat.” They gave $63 per child a month through in-kind support, assistance currently unacknowledged in any government surveys or statistics.

Edin and her coauthors—Johns Hopkins sociologist Timothy J. Nelson and postdoctoral scholar Jennifer B. Kane of the University of North Carolina—also found that:

  • Men who were the most disadvantaged tended to give a higher proportion of their support in gifts.
  • Fathers who did not visit their kids gave each child goods worth about $48 a month while dads who spent at least 10 hours a month with their children gave them almost twice as much in-kind support—$84. Each additional hour of visitation was associated with an increase of nearly $1 of in-kind support per month.
  • Fathers who were romantically involved with the mother offered 52 percent of their support through in-kind provisions, while dads not involved with the mother gave 36 percent in-kind.
  • The value of in-kind support varied by the child’s age with younger children getting the most in-kind support—an average of $78 for children under 5—compared to $41 for children 10 and up.

The Russell Sage Foundation and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development supported the research.

Source: Johns Hopkins University