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Dead Broke Dads

by Linda Ostreicher, Oct 01, 2002
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Since the days of the New Deal, the United States has provided financial support to the elderly, people with disabilities, and low-income children and their mothers. This leaves out working-age people without children who are unable to support themselves, a group which has been considered the "undeserving poor" since medieval times. In New York City, the drop in single adults receiving public assistance has been as sharp as that for families. However, adult heads of families are eligible for job training and educational services, and for continued financial assistance when they reach the five-year time limit on federal benefits. Adults without children who left what is now called the "Safety Net" program had no such resources to fall back on.

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Recently, politicians and social service providers have begun to rehabilitate the image of a large chunk of the adult population that does not live in a household with children. Many low-income men are "non-custodial fathers," meaning that they have children living apart from them, usually with the children's mothers. These fathers, who might be willing to support their children if they could afford to do so, are sometimes called "dead broke dads" to distinguish them from "deadbeat dads," who earn enough to pay child support, but don't.

By targeting all non-custodial fathers for child support payments, regardless of their financial resources, government agencies have discouraged low-income men from keeping in contact with their children. Fathers have an incentive to live "off the books," where they cannot be traced by welfare officials. This lifestyle may also prevent them from keeping in touch with their children.

Why Aren't Able-Bodied Men Earning A Living?

The labor market is not color-blind. In New York City, the unemployment rate for African-Americans is consistently double the rate for white workers, with Latinos falling somewhere in between. This does not include men who are in prison or jail, who made up 20 percent of jobless African-American men nationwide in 1996; they made up only five percent of jobless white men. Once they leave prison, ex-inmates are hampered in job-hunting by their criminal records.

According to the United States Department of Labor, for every hundred African-American women over the age of 20, there are 63 African-American men who are employed. Among white Americans of the same age group, there are 84 employed men to each hundred women. A 1995 study of employers' attitudes toward African-American male job applicants, sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation, found that employers believed they were lacking in "soft skills." This set of skills, which includes motivation and the ability to interact well with customers and co-workers, was considered nearly as important as the "hard skills" often learned through higher education, which fewer African-American men are pursuing.

Employers' attitudes may account for the fact that high school dropouts have a better chance of finding work in New York City if they are white. Two out of five young New York City men lacking a high school diploma were either unemployed or underemployed between 1996 and 1999; if they were African-American, the rate was four out of five. Things can only be worse now; since 1995, at least 140,000 new people have been added each year to those already looking for work in New York City. The new job-hunters are a mix of adults leaving public assistance, immigrants, and young people leaving high school. From 1996 to 1999, both unemployment and underemployment were more common in New York City than in the nation as a whole or the state of New York. This was true for all young adults with no education beyond high school.

What Can Be Done To Increase Earnings Of Non-Custodial Fathers?

There are many programs trying to help men be better fathers--the National Fatherhood Initiative has found a tenfold increase since 1994. The first wave of fatherhood programs was disappointing. A 1997 evaluation of one of those programs, Parents Fair Share, showed that efforts to help low-income fathers find better jobs were hampered by the participants' health problems, addictions, shortage of job skills, and hostile reception by their children's mothers.

A study of unmarried couples in New York City suggests that timing might be a factor in the success of such programs. Fathers may be most motivated to participate in income-raising activities at the time their children are born. In couples in which a teenager had recently become a mother, the unmarried father was usually eager to be a part of its life: to live with the child and its mother, and to help financially support the child. However, these fathers were unlikely to succeed as breadwinners. Most earned less than $20,000 a year, and had no education beyond high school. This was true even though two-thirds of them were over the age of 25.

In 2000, the Fathers at Work Initiative was launched in cities across the nation with federal and private foundation support. The Center for Employment Opportunities, a Manhattan-based organization established by the Vera Institute of Justice, is funded under this program to help New York City fathers gain skills that can lead to better jobs, to improve relationships with their children; and to help them navigate the child support system, if necessary. The agency's Responsible Fatherhood program serves nonviolent felony offenders who are on parole or probation; about 80 percent of participating fathers do not live with their children.

The Center for Employment Opportunities entered the fatherhood arena as a result of its experience as an employer of low-income men. The agency received child support enforcement orders from officials who did not realize that many of the employees who owed support had been in prison or jail, unable to earn money.

Fatherhood services offered by the center range from cooking classes provided by God's Love We Deliver, to legal advocacy regarding child support arrears. "If we teach them how to take care of themselves, they can be better fathers," an agency spokesperson explained. A participant works in the agency's transitional jobs program, generally in maintenance and repair work crews, until he finds a non-subsidized job with one of the employers whose trust has been earned by the organization during its 20-year history.

Another veteran at helping the hard-to-employ find and keep jobs is STRIVE, based in East Harlem. Their fatherhood program is independent of their employment program: clients are free to enroll in either program or in both. The majority of men in their fatherhood program are initially drawn to STRIVE by a desire to increase their income. Once they are in the employment program, participants are encouraged to take responsibility for all aspects of their lives. According to agency spokesperson Gregory Amos, the STRIVE employment program "gets them to realize that they have a shared responsibility for the financial and emotional support" of their children.

Men enrolled in STRIVE's fatherhood program are not required to be there to be eligible for employment services. Some are motivated by large back payments owed for child support, which could cause them to be sent back to jail, but most join the fatherhood program simply because they want to play a larger role in their children's lives. Similarly, in the Center for Employment Opportunities' father support groups, staff found that, "When we ask, 'What keeps you straight?' the answer is their kids."

The Shortfall Of The Minimum Wage

Five hundred years ago, the English Parliament passed a law outlawing execution of vagabonds, and the less drastic punishment of burning through their right ears. Instead, they were to be kept in prison. Laws governing the treatment of the poor have progressed a long way since then, but at least one traditional principle is still followed by American policy makers. Public assistance is kept at a level below the minimum wage, and even below the poverty line.

The average monthly cash grant to a New York City adult who lives alone is $331, for an annual income of less than $4,000, when the poverty line for a single adult is $9,039. Working a thirty-five hour week at minimum wage will bring in $9,373 a year, slightly above the poverty line, but not enough to keep a parent paying child support out of poverty. Until all men and women--with and without children--can earn a living wage, stinting on public assistance will continue to hurt children, the one group of low-income people that everyone wants to help.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.
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