Deadbeat Dad: The Myth and Reality of America’s Feckless Fathers

Deadbeat dads are denounced so regularly it has become a cultural tradition. This is not totally without reason, but it's also a highly simplistic view of families in crisis.

by Andrew Yarrow
Julia Barnes for Fatherly

Of the roughly 36 million men who fathered the 74 million American children under the age of 18, about nine million do not live with all of their minor children most or all of the time. Several million more see their kids at least once a week. Five out of six single-parent households are headed by women and the percentage of kids living only with their mothers has tripled between 1960 and 2016 to 23 percent (the number of custodial fathers has also grown but to little more than two million). All told, half of U.S. children will spend at least two years living in a one-parent home. Some will never or barely know their fathers. And fatherless children are much more likely to do poorly in school, act out, abuse drugs, and commit crimes.

Recognition of the crisis of father ‘absence’ dates back — like many poisonous elements of our national conversation around race– to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controversial 1965 book “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” The prevailing assumption since that time has been that mothers are abandoned by good-for-nothing men “who impregnate women and selfishly flee,” as William Bennett, George W. Bush’s secretary of education, said. These single moms elicit sympathy. These deadbeat dads are denounced. This has become a cultural tradition.

This is not totally without reason, but it’s also a highly simplistic view of families in crisis. Of the nation’s 13-14 million single custodial parents in 2015, five out of six were mothers, and half have formal or informal child-support agreements, yet about 30 percent do not receive any agreed-upon payments. While the median amount that custodial parents are supposed to receive was $4,200 per year in 2015, the median payments actually received was only $1,656. Among the 5 million mothers awarded child support, 1.4 million fathers paid nothing. Although their absolute numbers are smaller, the proportion of custodial fathers who were supposed to receive support was actually higher — 365,000 out of 884,000.

However, the notion that most fathers who aren’t in their children’s lives are deadbeats callously refusing to pay child support while avoiding parental involvement is demonstrably untrue. In fact, the reasons that most fathers are “missing” or fail to pay child support are complicated.

Most noncustodial fathers who don’t pay child support aren’t devious deadbeats: They are poor, don’t work, incarcerated, or in low-paid, insecure jobs that make child support unaffordable. As an Urban Institute study found, “no- and low-income parents owe the largest percent of arrears,” which can lead to a vicious cycle of repeat jail sentences for nonpayment, making it virtually impossible for these men to hold a job. And, perversely, tax and child-support laws can disincentivize men from even taking low-paid jobs.

As experts point out, “deadbeat” is not the same as dead broke. Child support also can be used as a bargaining chip: A mother may drop real or contrived domestic abuse charges or “allow” fathers to see their children more in exchange for more money. The incentives on both sides of that sort of dealing are damaging to adults and children.

According to the social policy research organization MDRC, “Low-income noncustodial fathers are a disadvantaged group…. Many live on the edge of poverty and face severe barriers to finding jobs, while those who can find work typically hold low-wage or temporary jobs. Despite their low, irregular income, many of these fathers are quite involved in their children’s lives and, when they can, provide financial and other kinds of support.”

Child custody and child support laws and judicial practices continue to favor mothers, given that the sotto voce assumption that mothers are innately better parents has been the guiding principle of family law. For generations, some psychologists and feminists, Hollywood, and even children’s books have portrayed fathers as biologically unfit, dangerous, lazy, or useless. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 45 percent of Americans think that mothers and fathers do an equally good job as parents, but 53 percent believe that mothers do a better job, while only one percent believe that fathers do better.

Despite the long-standing notion that pregnancy creates the ultimate bond between a mother and her child, research has shown that the overwhelming majority of fathers develop similarly strong bonds with their children and relish the idea of being a dad.

A frequent complaint among men — even never-married ones without children — is that many women talk a big game about equality. However, when it comes to custody, all too many women take it for granted that they are superior parents and naturally should receive full or preferential custody.

Most divorces are initiated by women, who are frequently counseled to get protective orders. Men come home, only to find police officers telling them to pack up, suddenly torn from their kids. With divorce attorneys charging upward of $400 per hour, only affluent, legally savvy, dedicated fathers are able to fight to be in their children’s lives. For the many fathers who weren’t married when their children were born, courts often don’t adjudicate custody and these men rarely have the resources to mount a legal battle.

Another reason that fathers can be out of the picture is that many mothers of all social classes “gatekeep,” keeping fathers away and alienating their kids from them. They may have new boyfriends and new babies, have moved far away, or just want to keep their exes away out of fear, loathing, or spite. One-fifth of the custodial mothers who did not receive child support in 2013 told the U.S. Census that they didn’t file for support because they did not want their child to have contact with their father.

In addition, as a result of America’s mass incarceration policies, at least one million fathers of minor children are behind bars. After they are released from prison, subsidized government housing is usually off-limits to fathers with a felony record, even if the mother of their child lives in public housing.

Moreover, the psychological dynamics of being cut off from their children can make the break more severe. Many men feel a profound sense of loss, made worse by occasional visits. They can feel shame and emasculated that they cannot play their roles as fathers and providers. They may be uncomfortable around stepfathers, and relations with their children’s mothers can be hostile. The dads I spoke with while doing research for my book, Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life, all but universally broke down in tears when talking about how much they missed their children — whether in inner-city Baltimore, working-class Ohio, or well-to-do suburbs in California.

Contrary to widespread opinion, most unmarried men don’t want to abandon their parental responsibilities when a child is conceived. In fact, when they become parents, most try to see their children regularly, despite economic, legal, and ex-partner barriers.

As Vernon Wallace, program manager of Baltimore’s Responsible Fatherhood Project, said of the African American fathers in his program, “They may seem like super-tough street guys, but they sit down and bawl when talking about their kids and fathers. The faucets come on. No man wakes up thinking, ‘I want to have kids and don’t want to take care of them.’ These dads aren’t perfect, but they want to be with their child.”

For large numbers of poor men, “children are not millstones but life preservers [and] saviors,” according to sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson, authors of Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City. Many inner-city men invest themselves fully in the lives of their kids, often more than professional men, who can define themselves by their careers.

But the stereotype of the bad dad persists.

When I talk to divorced men and women with children, I felt like stepping into Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1950 film Rashomon. The stories for the same couple could be as different as night and day. Many women described their ex-husbands as emotionally volatile, shiftless, philandering scum who did little to help raise the kids or provide economic support. Conversely, many men would say their exes were selfish, haughty, and deceitful, assuming that they were the “primary” parent and employing every dirty trick in the book to keep fathers from their children after their marriages dissolved.

While there can be truth to both narratives, and there certainly are some non-poor fathers who do not support their children, the fact of the matter is that most ‘”absent” fathers are not selfish deadbeats. Instead, the vast majority are hurting, and their children are hurting from their fathers not being a regular part of their lives. Rather than damn these men, we should recognize that they often ache for their children, and should be helped to be able to have meaningful relationships with their kids. Attitudes, policies, and the law need to change, and poorer fathers need better access to jobs, training, and other supports that could enable them, to contribute much more to their children.

Fathers, as well as mothers, play an essential role in children’s development. Love and nurturing by both parents are important, but fathers have been found to generally play a bigger role in promoting their children’s cognitive development, regulating their behavior, stimulating creative play, and developing their identity and social competence.

Despite reams of evidence that children do better when both parents are in their lives, the public and policymakers cling to wrongheaded ideas that all “missing” fathers are bad guys, failing to see that keeping fathers in their children’s lives benefits children, fathers, and society at large.

Andrew L. Yarrow, a former New York Times reporter, history professor, and policy analyst, discusses these and other issues facing millions of American men in his recent book, Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life.