Friday, December 29, 2006


Solangel Maldonado has a really great post up on "deadbeat" Black father that I found fascinating. It really cuts against the grain of the prevailing discussion of absent Black fathers, and adds some really important depth to the discussion.

Professor Maldonado notes that many of the Black fathers who don't pay child support are less "deadbeat" than "deadbroke." A massive portion of child support arrears come from fathers making less than $10,000/year. While this doesn't obviate the harm, it does perhaps signal that many of these "absent" fathers don't pay child support because they can't, not because they're actively trying to avoid a role in their child's life.

This becomes more clear in the second part of Maldonado's post, which requires a long excerpt because it's really good:
Further, although the majority of poor, nonresident Black fathers do not make formal child support payments, many are quite involved in their children's lives and make in-kind and nonfinancial contributions to their children. For example, they buy diapers, baby formula, groceries, toys, and baby furniture. One may wonder why these fathers do not simply pay child support instead, however minimal. There are a number of reasons. The items a father brings to his children are tangible evidence of his efforts to provide for them despite his dire circumstances. As such, the items have greater significance, visibility, and durability than cash payments which often disappear almost immediately as bills are paid or, in the case of children receiving public assistance, are used to reimburse the government for benefits it has provided the children.

Deadbroke Black fathers also make nonfinancial contributions--they often take care of their children in ways traditionally associated with motherhood. Because these men are often unemployed (or underemployed), they are available to take their children to school, to the doctor, and to watch them while their mothers work or run errands. Many researchers, myself included, have been surprised to learn that many "absent" Black fathers see their children not only on weekends, as divorced middle-class fathers often do, but often see them almost daily.

The law does not recognize these contributions. They do not count under our current definition of child support. Maybe they should. American society is alarmed at the high percentage of absent fathers—those who have little or no contact with their children. Studies suggest that children with absent fathers are more likely than children with involved fathers to perform poorly in school, to have low self-esteem, to become pregnant at an early age, to abuse drugs, and to engage in delinquent behavior. These children also feel rejected and often blame themselves for their fathers' disappearance. Although, as Professor Dorothy Roberts has noted, policymakers have treated paternal absence "as a distinctly Black problem," recent studies have found that poor, nonresident Black fathers are more involved with their children than are nonresident white or Latino fathers. Many men with child support arrears, however, are compelled to hide from their children because they fear detection by child support enforcement officials and possible incarceration. If society wants to encourage more Black men to remain a part of their children's lives, we must address an unintended effect of aggressive child support enforcement policies—they drive poor fathers away from their children.

Notably, many Black mothers seem to recognize the nonmonetary contributions that poor Black fathers make. They often do not pursue poor Black fathers for child support and focus instead on securing fathers' presence and involvement with their children. Some Black mothers fear that pursuing deadbroke fathers for payments that they cannot make will discourage them from seeing their children and from contributing at all. As one Black mother stated: "I don't care about the child support. Just see the child."

The question is, how should this non-financial (or non-traditional) support be harnassed. Obviously, it's really important, and if we are to take seriously the claim that absent fathers is a real problem for young Black children, then we need to remove obstacles towards parents seeing their kids (while obviously not swinging too far in relieving them of their support obligations). This is difficult, but a good first step would be recognizing the actual dynamic between "absent" Black fathers and their children and writing policy accordingly. I suspect that, as in so many matters of race, the current plans are dictated less by the reality and more by the stereotypes.


Jim Satterfield said...

I've seen this outside the black community as well, though in that case I think the dad just didn't want to work. I say this based on his personality, not some general belief. It's more than a little believable that this is an accurate portrayal of what's really happening versus what the government might see. I think it ties into how questionable our official numbers on employment are and how we ignore underemployment.

jpe said...

Very interesting stuff. The only thing that pops into mind initially is that we really, really don't want another incentive to stay on the dole and not get work.

Nevertheless, maybe some kind of fractional in-kind contribution would be a good thing.