“Deadbeat dads.” It was masterful as a degrading and dismissive epithet. It was memorable and it stuck. As an accurate description of fathers who do not live with their children, though, it is probably more off-base than it has ever been before.
I learned that from sociologists Kathryn Edin, who has done some of the most important work on single mothers and single fathers, particularly those who are poor. In an article published earlier this year with co-authors Timothy Nelson, Rachel Butler, and Robert Francis, she pointed out that “the great majority of low-income noncustodial fathers want to “be there” for their children and provide what they can.” What’s more, they “often identify fatherhood as a key source of meaning and identity.”
If those dads were never married to the mothers of their children, though, they may not have the same opportunities to see their kids or have a say in their upbringing as divorced dads. That’s because of the workings of the child support system.
Child support includes financial support; all dads, regardless of marital status, are expected to provide that. There are problems with the ways that the money is collected, as the authors explain, but the laws and practices do not seem to single out never-married dads for particularly unfair treatment.
For other kinds of support, though – such as spending time with your kids and being involved in important decisions – it is different. That’s where some particularly consequential singlism occurs. (Singlism is the stereotyping and stigmatizing of single people and discrimination against them.)
A two-tiered system
Child support, according to Edin and her colleagues, is a two-tiered system. The top tier is for men who were married to the mothers of their children. For them, “custody, visitation, and child support are adjudicated together in family court.”
Men who were never married to the mothers of their children get stuck in the second tier, in which “this process does not include custody determinations in most cases, and in only a few states are parenting time agreements set.”
“Unless unmarried fathers could afford legal representation or petitioned the family court on their own, they had no legal right to see their children or make decisions about their welfare.”
The authors note that the system also perpetuates and exacerbates the usual race and class biases:
“…married men—who are usually more advantaged by socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity—enjoy rights and privileges denied to their unmarried counterparts.”
Married men, even if they were not wealthier before they married, are more likely to be so afterwards, because of the many laws that financially benefit and protect only people who are legally married. Business strategies and informal practices also contribute to this – for example, all the products, memberships, promotions, and so forth that are cheaper by the couple. (Whenever, for example, a couple pays $100 for two tickets but an individual is charged $60 for one, the individuals are subsidizing the couples.)
There is an ironic consequence to this financial disadvantage that comes with being unmarried. The unmarried men who might need legal representation to be able to spend time with their children are exactly the men who are least likely to be able to afford such representation.
“Paychecks, not parents”
The never-married fathers in the second tier are treated “as paychecks, not parents.” The authors believe that the two-tiered system, “which offers rights to some fathers while denying them (at least de facto) to others, must also end.”
To me, the issues raised in this article are not about whether some fathers really should not have unsupervised visits (or maybe any visits) with their children. Abusive or violent parents are examples. But there are fathers like that among men of all marital statuses. My concern is with ways in which people who are not married are treated unfairly compared to people who are married. Differences in opportunities to have meaningful relationships with your children, or even just contact with them, strike me as particularly serious examples of singlism – and ones I knew nothing about before reading this article.