After seven years in conversation with nearly 400 low-income men, authors of a new study in the Journal of Marriage and Family are lending fresh insight into the ways that low-income fathers support their children in other households. Drawing on repeated semi-structured interviews, Kane, Nelson, and Edin find that poor noncustodial fathers provide surprising amounts of support in the form of diapers, clothes, food, and childcare. These non-cash goods and services, referred to as in-kind support, make up about one-quarter of the overall support nonresident fathers provide, and total an average of $60 per month in value. Though paternal support has traditionally been thought of in financial terms, a more comprehensive accounting of fathers’ contributions reveals that in-kind goods and services make up a significant portion of their efforts.
Though paternal support has traditionally been thought of in financial terms, a more comprehensive accounting of fathers’ contributions reveals that in-kind goods and services make up a significant portion of their efforts.
Talk to a noncustodial father though, and he may not think of buying shoes and toys as support at all. In fact, Kane et al. note that the overwhelming characterization of in-kind support by fathers is relational, not financial. Sharing a meal with one’s child is seen as a way of bonding—not a mental calculation involving some share of the child’s overall cost.
To help paint a more comprehensive picture of in-kind support, CFRP analyzed how often Texas men who fathered a child outside of marriage contribute things such as clothes, childcare, food, medicine, or toys by the time the child is 3 years old. Importantly, these fathers established paternity in the hospital at the time of the child’s birth, making an initial commitment to the child and setting themselves apart from the smaller segment of fathers who sidestepped legal parenthood at the birth and are apt to provide much less. Among this group who established legal paternity at the birth, 6 in 10 are still living with the mother and child three years later. For these fathers, the provision of in-kind support is built into their daily lives with the family.
For the remaining 40 percent of fathers who do not live with the mother, however, in-kind support is far less assured. When asked how often nonresident fathers provide things such as clothes, food, medicine, toys, or childcare, 4 in 10 mothers report that the father never provides these things, while another 28 percent say that the father only contributes in this way a handful of times throughout the year [Figure 1]. The majority of fathers who fail to provide in-kind support also fail to provide informal financial support, and 54 percent are already in the formal child support system by the time their child is 3 years old (not shown). Though it’s possible that entry into the formal system causes some fathers who were providing in-kind support to dial down or terminate their contributions, a likely scenario for many is that the father was never providing in-kind support to begin with. In these cases, the child support system acts as a safety net, jumpstarting the flow of support and lifting the economic wellbeing of children in its care.
Figure 1: Frequency of In-Kind Support
– by Daniel Dillon, Senior Research Associate