Most fathers want to provide financially for their children. For some, however, unstable employment and low wages can make this responsibility difficult to meet. A new qualitative study by Mathematica Policy Research focuses on men who voluntarily enrolled in Responsible Fatherhood (RF) programs and how financial instability caused many of these fathers to have trouble meeting their child support obligations. Their experiences suggest that state-level child support policies were often unable to accommodate their fluctuating economic circumstances. Only about half of the men who had ever sought a child support order modification to bring their obligation more in line with their income were successful. Those who were not successful, or who did not apply for a modification, were confused about the process, were not eligible because of state policies limiting the frequency of modification applications, or believed their inability to obtain legal representation harmed their chances of success.
These and other findings drawn from the qualitative component of the Parents and Children Together (PACT) evaluation shed light on fathers’ efforts to support their children, and they also illustrate the challenges and complexities low-income fathers experience in dealing with the child support system.
As part of the evaluation, conducted on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE), Mathematica researchers conducted three rounds of in-depth interviews with men who participated in one of four RF programs supported by HHS. The first round of in-depth interviews included 87 fathers, most of whom were African American, did not live with their children, and experienced high rates of economic instability and unemployment. The interviews covered a wide range of topics, including fathers’ relationships with their children and their children’s mothers, whether and how fathers supported their children, their experiences with the child support system, and the assistance they received from the RF programs. In a second round of in-depth interviews with 59 of these fathers, we collected more detailed information about the amount and type of informal support fathers gave their children, the fathers’ views of the child support system, and their efforts to modify their child support orders.
About 60 percent of fathers with child support orders had obligations below the national median of $364 per month, whereas nearly one-quarter had obligations above that amount. Another 16 percent did not know the amount of their orders. Almost three-fourths of the fathers whose child support orders were below the median amount were unemployed or in temporary or part-time jobs, and nearly two-thirds had experienced job turnover in the previous year. Many of the fathers with higher child support orders fell below the poverty level after paying child support. Most of these men worked full time, but the combination of low wages, lack of job stability, and relatively high child support obligations led them to feel consigned to a continuous, uphill financial struggle. Fathers at every level of obligation perceived a disconnect between their financial obligations to their children and their limited access to them, and they viewed this as inherently unjust. To best promote the well-being of fathers, mothers, and children, policymakers need to address and balance these issues. Toward that end, RF programs may want to:
- Expand or intensify their efforts to help men overcome barriers to holding steady jobs that pay living wages
- Facilitate more individualized, intensive, and longer-term assistance in negotiating child support issues
- Develop and expand upon partnerships with courts and child support agencies to help facilitate the establishment of parenting time agreements, especially for fathers with child support orders
The qualitative study of fathers is one component of Mathematica’s PACT evaluation for OPRE. Results from the PACT evaluation are contributing to the evidence base for policies and programs that support families—by expanding what we know about people who voluntarily enroll in RF programs, revealing how those programs are designed and operated, and describing how the programs affect participating families.
Read the brief, “Providing Financial Support for Children: Views and Experiences of Low-Income Fathers in the PACT Evaluation.” Learn more about the PACT evaluation and other Mathematica research on projects to support and strengthen families.