Child support among low-income noncustodial fathers

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Copyright © 2007 by Russell Sage Foundation. All rights reserved. HIGH POVERTY rates among single mother families and the consequent hardships their children face have focused attention on the role of absent fathers and child support as antipoverty strategy. Nationally, nearly 75 percent of custodial parents receive some kind of financial support from noncustodial parents (Grall 2003), but the percentage of low-income parents, usually fathers, providing for their families is much lower (Sorensen and Zibman 2001). Analysis of welfare populations indicate that only between 20 percent and 30 percent of poor fathers provide cash support to their children, though a slightly higher percentage provide in-kind resources (Miller et al. 2004; Rangarajan and Gleason 1998). Such low levels of support have generated research into why fathers contribute so few resources to their noncustodial children, and whether they have the means to meet child support obligations (Cancian and Meyer 2004; Sorensen and Oliver 2002). The child support picture becomes complicated when multiple partner fertility is considered. Multiple partner fertility is a term coined by scholars to describe families in which at least one partner has a child by someone else (Furstenberg and King 1999 cited in Carlson and Furstenberg 2006; Mincy 2002). It is particularly common among low-income families. A recent study found that at least 30 percent of welfare recipients in Wisconsin had children with two or more fathers, and 50 percent of mothers and fathers had children with more than one partner (Meyer, Cancian, and Cook 2005). Research with unmarried parents in urban areas-The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study-has found similarly high rates of multiple partner fertility (Carlson and Furstenberg 2006). Currently little is known about how low-income fathers divide their time and money across complex parenting arrangements, and why many provide few resources to households that are home to their noncustodial children (Miller et al. 2004). One possible explanation is that many fathers have low earnings and the demands on their resources are so great that the amount provided to any one child is insignificant (Manning, Stewart, and Smock 2003; Sorensen and Oliver 2002). A father owing child support to children in multiple households will be court ordered to pay a much higher proportion of his income than one whose noncustodial children live in the same household. An alternative explanation is that after the birth of a child, a father channels economic resources to his new family in an effort to demonstrate commitment, and greatly reduces or ends his support for other children (Furstenberg and Cherlin 1991). We consider influences on fathers' support for their noncustodial children. Data come from the Time, Love, and Cash Among Couples with Children study. To take advantage of the longitudinal nature of TLC3, we explore the cash and material goods that fathers provide for two sets of noncustodial children. First, we describe the child support given for children resulting from unmarried fathers' and mothers' previous relationships. Second, we analyze unmarried TLC3 fathers' financial contributions to their noncustodial children once their relationship with the TLC3 mother ends. We find that fathers with the means to support their children are generally doing so. Fathers point to low earnings and incarceration to explain their lack of support, and to what little they can do as a sign of their ability to "care" for their children. In contrast, many mothers report that they have learned that noncustodial fathers can't be counted on to provide support for children even if promised, and voice frustration that they are unreliable.

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Magnuson, KA; Gibson-Davis, CM

Published Date

  • January 1, 2007

Volume / Issue

  • 9781610441865 /

Book Title

  • Unmarried Couples with Children

Start / End Page

  • 228 - 251

International Standard Book Number 13 (ISBN-13)

  • 9780871542854

Citation Source

  • Scopus