Edin: Even the Most Marginal Dads ‘Linking Love and Provision’ for Their Children

June 19, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

“The child support system weakens the child/father bond by separating the act of love from the act of providing.”

That’s a quotation from Johns Hopkins scholar, sociologist Kathryn Edin that we find in this article (Time, 6/15/15). Edin or course is one of the best and most dogged of academics to look dispassionately at very marginal fathers in the context of childcare and child support. Her findings invariably skewer the pop culture’s narrative of the “deadbeat dad.” And so it is with her most recent research that’s the main focus of the Time Magazine piece.

Edin and her husband, Timothy Nelson, studied over 360 fathers who are mostly poorly educated and either unemployed or marginally so. What the researchers found was that those fathers often don’t have the money to pay much in the way of child support, but they make up for that at least partially with “in kind” contributions. That is, instead of paying money, they buy diapers, clothing, formula, etc.

The study, which appeared in June in the Journal of Marriage and Family, finds that many fathers who don’t pay child support in cash, nevertheless make a significant contribution in kind. Almost half of the fathers in the study who were cash-poor nevertheless tried to contribute in other ways—providing baby products, clothing, school expenses and food—worth an average of $60 a month.

“The most disadvantaged dads end up looking like they’re completely distanced from their kids but they’re actually giving quite a lot,” said one of the authors, Kathryn Edin, a sociologist and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg Distinguished Professor. “I was really surprised by how much these disadvantaged guys, these truly marginally employed men, are putting all of this thought and what little resources they have into showing their children that they care.”

Of the 367 lower income, noncustodial dads studied in three different cities, only 23% gave what the courts would recognize as child-support through the system, but 46% contributed in-kind support and 28% gave cash straight to the mom, says the study, which is the first to look specifically at the more informal ways dads try to look after their kids.

Sixty six of the dads in the study were what’s considered the full-on deadbeat, giving absolutely no cash support to the 95 children they fathered between them. But the researchers found they gave $63 per child a month through in-kind support — support that doesn’t show up in statistics.

That’s important. It means that the statistics on child support aren’t accurate. They only track money paid to the state while ignoring in kind assets contributed and the value of those assets. And of course no judge will listen to a dad who claims to have paid his support in items his child needs. No, it’s money or nothing in child support court. No money? Then it’s jail for you.

Intriguingly, both Edin and the Time article ask why dads would give things the child needs rather than money when the child support system gives them no credit for doing so.

Why do dads prefer to buy stuff for their kids, rather than give money to the kids’ moms? Because they get more recognition for these acts from their children. It’s a way, says Edin, of bonding. “We need to respect what these guys are doing, linking love and provision in a way that’s meaningful to the child,” she said in a statement accompanying the release of the journal.

So the very men whom the system and countless commenters regard as the lowest of the low — deadbeats — are actually sacrificing their own welfare (by increasing their likelihood of going to jail) in order to get face time with their kids. Stated another way, they understand that their kids need more from them than money, so the find a way to not only provide for them, but to be with them as well.

That gave rise to Edin’s statement I quoted at the beginning of this piece. It’s a fascinating point of view. By only recognizing money paid to the state as support, the child support system actually weakens the father/child relationship. It does that because all child support must be routed through the state, so anything that’s given directly to the mother or the child is ignored. Money paid to the state doesn’t require Dad’s presence in his child’s life.

As an aside, I’d argue that those men are doing something else as well. One of the most serious criticisms of the child support system is that there’s no requirement that the recipient spend the money on the child. Non-custodial parents reserve special disdain for exes who receive support but, when they see the child, it’s dirty, dressed in rags and hasn’t eaten.

I’ve commented before that setting up a system much like food stamps would go a long way toward solving that problem and would likely result in higher levels of support being paid. Like food stamps, we could issue custodial parents debit cards that can be used to pay only for certain child-related items.

So from here, it looks like that’s what the men Edin and Nelson studied are doing. They’re making sure their money goes to the child and not the mother. They’re doing that by contributing items that only a child can use. And again, they’re increasing their risk of jail by doing so.


National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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