December 11, 2019 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
Nicholas Zill has had a long and illustrious career as a research psychologist. Anyone who’s studied issues related to families, fathers and children over the last 30 years or so has run into his work. He’s now a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. Here’s his most recent article (IFS, 12/4/19).
There’s nothing earth-shaking in the piece. He’s simply reporting on child support figures and raising issues about what they mean for kids. He rightly points out for example that the child support enforcement system works just fine for parents who’d be paying anyway, but does a lousy job if the parents are poor. We know this because the Office of Child Support Enforcement has been letting us know for well over a decade.
[M]y examination of child support data from the Census Bureau reveals that the new fatherhood (i.e. fathers spending more parenting time) is not benefiting the children who need it most. (parenthetical mine)
That is, whereas married and more affluent fathers are spending greater amounts of time with their kids than did fathers of past generations, poorer and less well-educated fathers aren’t. Now, I’m not sure that, as Zill suggests, kids of poor parents need their fathers more than do those from more privileged backgrounds, but Zill has a point: there’s a divide in American society between those with actively engaged fathers and those without. Those without tend to be poorer, not incidentally because they don’t have fathers in the home.
Further, a majority of divorced or separated parents now have no formal agreement for child support or visitation by the father. That’s remarkable enough in itself, but even more so when we consider that the existence of such a formal agreement is associated with more child support and greater paternal involvement in child care.
Perhaps the most dismaying indicator of paternal non-involvement is the proportion of non-resident fathers who have had no contact with their offspring in the last year. Surprisingly, that proportion has not diminished in recent years, fluctuating around 35% between 2007 and 2015…
Needless to say, that’s disastrous for everyone, but particularly the children.
Much of the decrease in formal child support arrangements is due to the decline in divorce. But before we celebrate that decline, we should realize that it’s mostly a result of a decline in marriage. It’s impossible to divorce if you’re not married. So non-marital childbearing is becoming more the norm and that’s a problem, because non-marital unions are notoriously less stable than marital ones. They break up far earlier in the relationship, so the children cycle through more male father figures than do the kids whose parents are (or were once) married.
And of course the decline in active fatherhood among the less affluent means an increase in mothers’ reliance on public services.
While child support agreements and payments are declining, more children of unmarried parents are receiving assistance from government nutrition, health, and welfare programs, such as SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, WIC, CHIP, public housing, TANF, and state-run family assistance programs. The proportion of fatherless families receiving one or more of these benefits increased dramatically, rising from 35% in 2007 to 49% in 2015.
But governmental assistance can never do what full employment can.
The surest way out of destitution for fatherless families is not through government benefits, however, but through maternal employment. When custodial mothers worked full-time, all year, only 9% of their families are in poverty. By contrast, 41% of families are poor when mothers works (sic) only part time or for only part of the year, and 63% are poor when the mother does not work at all.
As we’ve long known, households headed by single mothers are the most likely to be poor. Over 30% of single-mother households with children are poor versus about 18% of single-father households and about 15% overall.
All of this is worth knowing, but, for all his scrupulous accuracy about the data, Zill’s solution to the various problems he describes is seriously misguided and uninformed by the basics of what it means to be a father in this country at this time.
More on that later.