Should welfare programs pay more attention to dads?
Editor’s note: This is the third article in a four-part series, written in partnership with TheAtlantic.com, examining the role of fathers in American families. You can also read part one, part two or part four of the series.
The 10-month-old twins call Frandy “Da Da.” He changes their diapers, mixes up their formula and helps shoulder the burden of providing food, clothing and medical care.
But the girls aren’t his children; Frandy’s girlfriend Cassie was pregnant when they started dating. When, a few months later, the two decided to move in together, “I knew raising the kids was part of the package,” said Frandy, a 23-year-old from inner-city Boston.
His own 6-year-old daughter lives across town with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Frandy sends a check every month.
Such complex family arrangements are becoming increasingly common — particularly among the poor, like Frandy and Cassie. Nearly 40 percent of unwed parents with low education levels share child-rearing responsibilities with a co-residential boyfriend or girlfriend, according to a 2013 report from the United States Census Bureau. Oftentimes these couples share at least one biological child, but in 27 percent of relationships, moms or dads are stepping in to raise children they didn’t conceive.
U.S. government programs designed to help such families, however, haven’t evolved with the population. Based on decades-old stereotypes that single mothers are raising children alone and single dads are “deadbeats,” the majority of U.S. anti-poverty programs almost exclusively serve women and children, said Jacquelyn Boggess, co-director of the Center for Family Policy and Practice, a Wisconsin-based think tank that focuses on supporting low-income parents.
The welfare system, as a result, can become a muddled mess of rearranging rather than relieving poverty. Single, non-custodial fathers bear the brunt. But dads don’t suffer alone. Because the poor pull together to support one another, everyone absorbs the pinch.
“It’s like seven people in bed together, sharing a very small blanket,” Boggess said. “If you move the blanket over to cover up one person who’s chilly, someone else is going to get cold.”
Sprawled across the width of a bare mattress on a recent afternoon, one leg under a blanket that’s coming apart at the seams and one leg out, Cassie was trying to take a nap. But her little girls weren’t having it.
Next to her, one twin was bouncing up and down. “Unnn-gah!” she squealed.
From a crib across the room, twin number two replied with a squawk.
Frandy, Haitian by descent, is a barrel-chested man with long dreads he keeps swept back in a low ponytail. Hearing the noise, he poked his head into the bedroom. “You OK, babe?” he said. He and Cassie can’t afford their own place, so the family of four shares a bedroom in his mother’s apartment in Dorchester. His sister lives in the next room over with his four nieces and nephews.
“I can’t get any sleep with them around,” said Cassie, groggily. “They’ll just go back and forth all afternoon.”
Four chubby little arms reached for Frandy. He scooped the babies up. One laid her dimpled cheek on his shoulder. One laced her fingers through his braids.
Frandy sees his relationship with Cassie’s twins as a second chance at fatherhood.
He was 16 when his girlfriend told him, standing in the stairwell of their high school, that she was pregnant. He was scared — scared that he wouldn’t be able to support the baby, scared to tell his mother. Mostly, though, he recalled, “I loved my girlfriend and I thought I was going to be with her forever.”
He wanted to be the kind of father his father wasn’t: present. He quit smoking weed with friends, got a job at Toys ’R’ Us, and started stuffing his uncashed paychecks into a piggy bank.
But despite his efforts, the couple called it quits before his daughter was a month old. “We couldn’t stop fighting,” he said. They attempted to co-parent for a few months more, until, one day, Frandy came over to find his baby’s mother with a bulging bruise on her forehead. He attacked the man who was responsible, a mutual friend, and ended up behind bars for attempted murder.
He served 22 months in prison. After he got caught carrying a weapon while on parole, he served an additional three years.
Historically, funding for both government and nonprofit programs to help men has been scarce, said Joy Moses, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. A recent survey from the Center for Family Policy and Practice shows the top two ways that nonprofit service providers connect with men is through parole and child support enforcement programs. “As a low-income man, you almost have to get in trouble to get help,” Moses said.
In prison, Frandy signed up for every program that would take him. He completed his GED and volunteered to speak to at-risk youth “to help others avoid my mistakes.”
But his baby grew up without him. For a year, his ex-girlfriend refused to bring her to visit, so Frandy’s mother petitioned for permission to do it herself.
It was a no-contact visitation. The two were separated by glass.
“How you doing, beautiful?” Frandy said, waving his hand.
The little girl just stared at him, sucking on her pacifier. By the time he was released last year, his ex-girlfriend didn’t want the child to have anything to do with him.
Frandy took the twins to the front room and sat on the couch, balancing one girl on each knee. As he told his story, he jiggled the babies up and down. His knees stilled, though, when he spoke about his crimes. Eyes downcast, big shoulders hunched forward like he was trying to collapse into himself, he said, “I’m ashamed of what I did and of who I was.”
Behind bars, Frandy couldn’t make money, but his child-support payments still came due every month. His mother, an immigrant who arranges flowers for neighborhood weddings and funerals, scraped up the money. Since his release, Frandy has been cleaning condos. In a good month, he can make between $1,000 and $2,000. But the work isn’t consistent. In the year he’s been free, he’s frequently gone weeks without a call. He’s applied to dozens of jobs and registered with a temp agency, but, as a felon, he has struggled.
Even without a criminal record, the job market isn’t favorable for men like him — black, with just a GED. The economy is shifting and the blue-collar manufacturing jobs that have put food on the table for uneducated workers for decades are disappearing. During the recession, men lost twice as many jobs as women, and they’re still struggling to claw their way out. Black men have the highest unemployment rate in the country, 13 percent.
A number of prominent nonprofit organizations, such as STRIVE International, specialize in helping men like Frandy acquire job skills and get on their feet. In recent years, several foundations, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, have launched initiatives targeting young minority men. Frandy hasn’t heard of any of them.
“Because there’s been such a long history of not serving men, they aren’t used to being able to turn to anyone for help,” Moses said. “A lot of times their experiences with the system have been punitive, so they are reluctant to reach out.”
For now, Frandy’s mother continues to help him with his child support. His grandmother has stepped in to cover the monthly legal fees associated with his arrests. “If I didn’t have family support, I would be beyond struggling,” Frandy said.
Many noncustodial fathers in his situation aren’t so lucky. More aggressive child support enforcement was a key component of welfare reform in the 1990s, said Boggess, of the family-policy center. Because the welfare system was designed to act as a sort of “surrogate husband” to single mothers, the government looked to fathers as a way to get people off the dole, she said.
Now, men across the country owe $111 billion in unpaid child support, according to the Office of Child Support Enforcement. Many have racked up debts in the tens of thousands, Boggess said. But most, like Frandy, make less than $10,000 a year. “These men can’t pay,” she said.
Even if a man can come up with the cash, it may not benefit his children, said Kristin Harknett, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. If a woman receives government cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, any money her children’s father contributes is earmarked to pay back the government.
In some ways, child-support enforcement is actually having a negative effect on children, Harknett said. Mothers often keep fathers from spending time with their children to encourage them to pay up. Many fathers go underground to avoid doing jail time for falling into arrears. Often, as in Frandy’s case, other impoverished family members pick up the bill. “Basically we give money to one poor person, and then we find the nearest poor person connected to that child and ask for it back,” Harknett said.
At 4 p.m. the door to the apartment flew open. Frandy’s four nieces and nephews were home from school. They rushed back to the kitchen, shedding backpacks and shoes as they went. His sister popped her head into the living room.
“Do you want some pasta?” she said. Frandy’s mother had boiled up a pot — half spaghetti noodles, half corkscrew pasta. For the sauce, she opened a can of tomato paste, mixed it with hot sauce and chicken bouillon, and tossed in a chopped up hot dog.
Of the adults in the house, only Frandy’s sister, who works as a security guard, has a steady paycheck. Everyone pitches in for food as they can, and, to fill in the gaps, they rely on a hodgepodge of government benefits. Both Cassie’s and Frandy’s mothers are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. As the custodial parent of the twins, Cassie qualifies for cash benefits. She also uses vouchers from the Women, Infants and Children food-and-nutrition service.
In some ways, the mismatch between family structure and welfare-eligibility requirements work in Cassie and Frandy’s favor. Aside from SNAP, most programs have such low eligibility thresholds that only the poorest single mothers with children qualify, said Lawrence Berger, a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Cohabitating with a boyfriend who is not biologically related to any of the household’s children is the most advantageous setup in most states. The children get the benefit of government help but still have a second adult in the house to bring in cash. If the couple were married, Frandy’s income would be factored into eligibility tests and Cassie might not qualify for help.
Still, money is tight. Most of these government programs aren’t designed to fully meet a family’s needs, Berger said. The average monthly SNAP benefit, for example, provides just $1.50 per meal, according to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.
The biggest flaw in current anti-poverty policies is that they don’t take into account the increasing role that fathers play in children’s lives, Berger said. As mothers go to work at higher rates, fathers are taking on more child-rearing responsibilities. Even if parents are splitting the financial burden, though, only one parent can benefit from anti-poverty programs like SNAP or the earned-income tax credit. So, while mom gets help paying the bills, dad, who is oftentimes just as poor, is held responsible for his share of the costs.
“Helping women and not men creates huge gender asymmetry, which makes it harder for couples to stay together,” said Harvard sociologist Kathryn Edin, author of "Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City." “Men can’t earn enough money to earn a place in the family. They become dispensable.”
Expanding the earned-income tax credit to include non-custodial parents could go a long ways in addressing poverty, Edin said. Not precisely welfare, the EITC is a tax subsidy for low-income workers that increases as wages go up. The idea, she said, is to make good on the promise that “if you work, you won’t be poor.”
“Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if men were rewarded for working?” she said.
Frandy thinks so. He dreams about going to college and starting a career in criminal justice, he said. “I just have to figure out a way.”