A father and daughter walk to their vehicle with a bag of produce. Photo by Scott Ball.
Children need their fathers in their lives – their money, yes, but also their time, companionship, affection, and guidance. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Men today know that there are many ways to be a good father, but child custody and child support policies judge fathers in one narrow way: money. As a result, some fathers lose contact with their children because they are struggling economically, not because of what kind of fathers they are. That is bad for them and bad for their kids.

When it comes to policies to support children, we need to remember that support is about all of the social and emotional support that fathers can give, not just financial support.

One of us has spent many years researching the family contexts that promote positive child development. The other has spent the past year observing the Texas family court system to understand how it works. We have seen the connection between these two experiences. Children need their fathers in their lives – their money, yes, but also their time, companionship, affection, and guidance. Yet, our child custody and support system operates in such a way that some men who cannot supply money are not able to give those other things.

Government statistics show that the majority of fathers in the more than 14 million open child support cases in this country last year owed debt on that support. Such dads face a range of punishments, including having their paychecks garnished, tax refunds intercepted, or professional licenses suspended. Some tactics are harsher, including going to jail.

Some may argue that such a “deadbeat dad” deserves these types of punishment. In many cases, this is the right approach. After all, there are definitely fathers who owe child support because they are shirking their responsibility, mad at their exes, or believe that they have been mistreated by the court. But some of these dads simply cannot afford to pay. In these cases, punishment is not the right approach. A study from a Washington think tank found that more than 80% of child support debt is owed by dads making less than $20,000 a year – less than half the median income in the U.S.

This is a modern issue that emerged from the historical context of family life, and the law and policy are lagging behind our evolving culture. In the not-so-distant past, fatherhood was defined primarily by men’s financial support for children, and many fathers were uninvolved in the day-to-day raising of children. As a result, women typically got primary custody of children, with fathers ordered to pay child support. Fathers could fulfill their family function by paying that support without actually parenting. Today, views of fatherhood are dramatically different. That is why men are increasingly arguing for something more than the traditional mother custody/father support arrangement. In court, however, many remain constrained by the old notions of fatherhood.

This problem can be seen in the case of low-income men who are excellent fathers – and viewed by their exes as excellent fathers – but are kept from their children for “failing” as breadwinners. This needs to change. Fortunately, the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement has been pursuing efforts to discourage the use of incarceration as an enforcement tactic for men who have fallen on hard times. These efforts promote job search programs as an alternative that can help such dads advance economically, while keeping them accessible to their children.

But more is needed. Child support policies should more closely reflect parents’ realistic ability to pay. When dads suffer a loss in income, they often have trouble changing their child support orders, which is a lengthy process that requires both parents to show up in court. Policymakers should make it easier for child support orders to change with income for fathers who are really making an effort to support their children. They should also recognize dads’ non-financial contributions to their kids, through providing classes that teach co-parenting skills to both parents, helping dads to spend more time with their kids.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear: There are many low-income men who are ready to be the kind of present father that their children need them to be. Laws and policies need to find ways to help those fathers – all fathers, really – who want to be there for their kids.

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Robert Crosnoe

Robert Crosnoe is a professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at The University of Texas at Austin.

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Elizabeth Cozzolino

Elizabeth Cozzolino is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at The University of Texas at Austin.