Punishing Fathers for Being Poor

A new book shows why the U.S. needs a different approach toward men who don’t pay child support.

By Anne Kim
Washington Monthly
April/May/June 2020

In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act, a tough measure that made it a federal crime, punishable by up to two years in prison, to cross state lines to skip out on paying child support. The legislation had overwhelming congressional approval, sailing through the House of Representatives and passing the Senate by unanimous consent. With the backdrop of bipartisan momentum for “ending welfare as we know it,” Clinton summed up the then-conventional wisdom at the signing ceremony for the bill: “One of the main reasons single mothers go on welfare is that fathers have failed to meet their responsibilities to the children.” By forcing more dads to live up to their obligations, the thinking went, this legislation would save taxpayers money and encourage young men to think twice.

This zeal for enforcement was rooted in long-standing, blanket assumptions around low-income fathers’ behavior and presumed moral failings. In 1965, the now-infamous “Moynihan Report,” authored by the late sociologist and senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, blamed the “breakdown of the Negro Family” for high rates of child poverty and welfare dependency in that community. And in 1986, a CBS special report titled The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America cemented the stereotype of the neglectful “hit-and-run” father. Hosted by none other than Bill Moyers, the show featured Timothy McSeed, a 26-year-old African American man who had fathered six children with four different women and seemingly showed no interest in supporting his offspring. As McSeed told Moyers, “[H]avin’ a baby, carrying a baby, that’s on her, you know.” Fathers like McSeed justified the hard-line stance of prominent conservative analysts such as Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation and former Secretary of Education William Bennett, who blamed low-income fathers for all manner of social ills.

As Bennett wrote in his 2001 book, Broken Hearth, “It is unmarried fathers who are missing in record numbers, who impregnate women and selfishly flee.” Moral judgments like these have since calcified into policy; even today, the federal government maintains a website with mug shots of “most wanted deadbeats,” along with cautionary profiles of those who’ve been caught.

Then, as now, it makes sense for the government to enforce child support payments from fathers who have the means to easily comply but still shirk their responsibility.

For families who receive child support, it can represent a large share of their income and keep them out of poverty.

But what about fathers who are themselves struggling with poverty? Only relatively recently have researchers begun challenging the view that low-income fathers are generally disinclined to support their kids—and that enforcement is the first and best response. Among these works is an important new volume by the scholars Paul Florsheim and David Moore, Lost and Found, that shows the complexities of low-income fatherhood and puts these dads in a far more sympathetic light. Significantly, the book reinforces growing concerns that “get-tough” policies can backfire for poor fathers, causing greater hardship for the children these efforts are intended to help.

Read the full article here.