By Ronald Mincy

There’s one group of fathers who didn’t get any ties or phone calls yesterday. I speak of what we typically call “delinquent fathers” or “deadbeat dads”—men who have largely been absent in the lives of their children, both physically and financially.

Some would say they don’t deserve Father’s Day wishes, but I would argue such men deserve something more than the fate they’ve been allotted by American society.

In doing the research for my recent book on this topic, I met many men who wanted desperately to be able to support their children and play an active parenting role but were not able to do so due to limited education and employment opportunities over the past couple of decades. They are what I would call “economically vulnerable nonresident fathers”—and together constitute a greatly misunderstood population in the American social landscape.

Take Kelly, for instance, one of the subjects I interviewed for my research. Kelly is a 29-year-old father of a nine-year old girl who lives with her mother. At first both parents worked together to make sure their daughter had what she needed, but all of that changed after her second birthday. Suddenly Kelly’s visitation hours were sharply cut back by the child’s mother, he thinks because of her boyfriend, and he was given a formal child support order.

Delinquent fathers

To meet his child support payments, Kelly was forced to work off the books for a while, a decision he came to with very mixed feelings. Next he took the initiative of enrolling in college, thinking that with a college degree he would improve his employment prospects. But to study fulltime, he had to quit his job; and without a job he began to fall behind on his child support payments.

Kelly then took a part-time job, working close to thirty hours a week as a delivery driver on top of his studies. It was a grueling schedule leaving Kelly with little money to show for his efforts, since 65 percent of his wages were garnered for child support.

The results were predictable. Kelly ended up dropping out of college after just three semesters. Meanwhile, his arrears continued to grow. His driver’s license was suspended twice, and Kelly ultimately lost his job due to the loss of his license. Unable to keep up his payments, he found himself charged with willful nonpayment of child support. The judge demanded that Kelly make a lump sum payment of $1,000 toward his child support debt by his next court date in three weeks. Kelly fell far short, raising only $90, and was incarcerated.

The last time I spoke with him, Kelly had not been unable to find employment for the past six months. Every week without a job is just one more week of additional debt. The cycle continues…

Fathers like Kelly are much more common than once believed. And dispelling another long-held myth, Kelly is white, as are 40 percent of fathers we describe as economically vulnerable. In fact, 9 percent of American men between the ages of 15 and 44 years old are just like Kelly. They are nonresident fathers, making up to $40,000 a year and are unable to support themselves and their children. Frequently, they are also barred from playing a role in the lives of their children as much as they would like, although a surprising number of them manage to see their children on a regular basis despite the financial, legal, and extra-legal barriers they face.

Many in our society will find it tempting to berate Kelly and other men like him for fathering children outside of wedlock whom they cannot support, I don’t see it that way, however. Having children out of wedlock is now quite common, and our child-support system should be updated to reflect a more complex reality.

The federal government is currently soliciting a new round of proposals for tests that could be applied to determine whether a man is a responsible father. If he is, then the community could provide help with training him and the mother of the child in strategies for co-parenting, which ultimately benefits children. And the government would supplement the earnings of these fathers so that they will not end up in prison.

With a more enlightened set of policies in place, the Kelly’s of our society, too, could have a happier, if not necessarily happy, Father’s Day.

Ronald Mincy is Maurice V. Russell Professor of Social Policy and Social Work Practice and the co-author of Failing Our Fathers: Confronting the Crisis of Economically Vulnerable Nonresident Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2015).

– See more at: http://socialwork.columbia.edu/news-events/so-called-delinquent-fathers-deserve-happier-father-s-day#sthash.UGLAC3AN.dpuf

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