There are a number of stereotypes and misconceptions that drive the modern child-support system that have been covered extensively on DadsDivorce.com, but perhaps none are as confounding as the myth of the deadbeat dad.
The concept of the deadbeat dad originates from a CBS special report by Bill Moyers that ran in 1986 titled “The Vanishing Family: The Crisis in Black America.” In the report, Moyers interviewed a man named Timothy McSeed who boasted about having six children who he willingly didn’t support financially.
The story spread to news outlets across the country. The image of an arrogant father proud of not providing needed support to his children and their mother was reinforced and the outraged it sparked even led to stricter laws about collecting past child support debts.
While an alarming anecdote, the story of one irresponsible father shouldn’t be used to make gross generalizations and certainly shouldn’t justify passing legislation. In fact, much of the research concerning dads who fail to pay child support paints a much different picture.
Here are three facts about “deadbeat dads” that might surprise and possibly concern you.
A deadbeat parent is anyone who fails to pay child support.
The legal definition of a deadbeat parent is “parents of either gender who have freely chosen not to be supportive parents or who do not pay their child support obligations.” This does not include parents who miss child support payments because they can’t afford it.
According to a U.S. General Accounting Office Report, 66 percent of child support paid by non-custodial fathers is due to an inability to pay. Calling those fathers “deadbeats” is an unfair label.
“Deadbeat dads” are often only deadbeats because of self-defeating enforcement laws.
The child-support system does a great job of enforcing laws that punish parents for missed child support payments. That includes garnishing wages, intercepting income tax refunds and suspending driver’s licenses.
However, they fall short in offering solutions to the real problem and often drive a wedge deeper between fathers and their children.
If a divorced father finds himself down on his luck and unemployed and misses a child support payment, he can face up to a year in prison if he falls too far behind. That causes more harm to the children since research shows that children who grow up without fathers are at a distinct disadvantage.
While in prison, for being too poor to pay child support, arrearages continue to increase while he has no source of income. Once he is released, the child support burden is even heavier and he faces even bleaker employment prospects. This cycle can be vicious and unending.
Many fathers (and possibly most) who miss child support payments still care about their children.
Timothy McSeed left a lasting image of a father who could care less about his children. But much of the research on fathers who fail to meet child support payments shows that many of them still care deeply about their children, but face barriers when trying to get involved in their lives.
Harvard sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson published the book “Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City” that dispelled many of these myths. By following and interviewing 110 mostly unmarried fathers in New Jersey and Philadelphia, they discovered many “deadbeat dads” try to compensate for their lack of financial support by forming deeper emotional ties to their children.
Wrenetha Julion, PhD, MPH, RN, FAAN, and professor of nursing at Rush University in Chicago conducted a study for her doctoral dissertation that explored the views of African American non-resident fathers about parental involvement.
For the study, she conducted seven focus groups with 69 African-American non-resident fathers. The results of the study debunked the idea that these fathers are uninterested and uncommitted to their children, but that there was a critical need for fatherhood involvement programs to help them remain engaged in their children’s lives.