Papa’s Not a Rolling Stone: Low-Income Men and Their Children

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This article appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

Papa was a rolling stone,
Wherever he laid his hat was his home
And when he died, all he left us was alone.
—The Temptations

There is a widespread belief that poor men make bad fathers because they can’t or won’t support their families and are often absent from their children’s lives. The perception of the deadbeat, uninvolved dad has been fueled by national statistics about the rates of marriage, cohabitation, employment, and child-support payments among poor men.

These national findings, however, depict averages and do not reveal the personal struggles of low-income fathers and the individual stories behind the statistics. A burgeoning body of social science research on how poor men engage with their children presents a much more nuanced story. This research finds that many poor men are very much involved in their children’s lives, including reading and playing—activities that help children gain the social and cognitive skills they need to do well in school and beyond—and that more fathers want to be more engaged with their kids. To the extent that low-income fathers are not involved, it’s often because these men are working in multiple jobs that pay little and leave them little if any time to spend time with their children.

A father participating in a study aimed at understanding how much time fathers spend with their children asked the interviewer, somewhat exasperated, “So, when are you going to ask me how many jobs I have so I can support my family?” Poor fathers’ emotional contribution to their children’s well-being may be acknowledged by researchers as just as important as their financial contribution—but it is mostly ignored in public policy and public narratives. The public and social expectation is that poor men should support their children financially, no matter how grim the conditions or rewards of work, because work is the best thing they can do for their families.

The reality is that many poor men work in jobs that pay at or near the minimum wage; after working two or three such jobs, they still do not make much money. Besides the low pay, their hours tend to be inflexible or unpredictable, based on shift work or on-demand work. Working long hours and on weekends takes them out of the home for the majority of the day. These are the lowest-paid workers, earning in the bottom quarter of the earnings distribution, in low-status but growing sectors such as line cooks, fast-food workers, movers, laborers, stock boys, janitors, and security guards. It should come as no surprise that nonwhites, immigrants, and adults with less than a high school diploma often bear these burdensome work schedules. 

Although the men we interviewed are aware that they must work long days to support their families, they are also aware that working multiple jobs for many hours is incompatible with their belief that being a “good parent” means spending time with your child. As participants in our study told us, working and taking care of children is a consistent source of stress: “Once I get out of work, I pick him up from her [grandmother’s] house … and once we get home, we cook something, and then it is already too late to go out, so I can’t take him out [to the park]; it is 7 or 8:30 P.M.”

Our research suggests that most would rather be working during normal business hours so they could be more available to their families.

An unintended consequence is that the low-wage economy pits the demands of work against the demands of being a parent. The strain is especially difficult for parents with young children, who demand a lot of time, attention, and care.

One man told us that as his children got older, the long hours at work meant little contact with them. Soon, one of his sons joined a gang and was killed, leaving him with a grandchild. He was convinced that what got his son killed was the fact that he and his wife were not able to properly monitor and supervise him. He vowed not to make the same mistake with his grandchild; he has taken another job so his wife can quit her job and stay home to take care of their grandson.

Of course, balancing long workdays and family is not just the plight of poor men. Men at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum also work long hours (usually in one job), but they typically have more flexibility to make choices that serve their families. Alex Williams, in a 2012 article for The New York Times, wrote about the increasing number of (mostly professional) fathers who have chosen to leave their 70-to-90-hour jobs to raise their children. Similarly, a recent article by Andrew Moravcsik in The Atlantic discussed his choice to put his prestigious career as a college professor partly on hold and to put his wife’s career first so he could stay home and be the “lead” parent after one child was getting into trouble at school.

Managers and professional workers often have jobs that offer flexible time or allow them to work partly at home. Depending on the occupation, 10 percent to 30 percent of these workers do just that. Working at home gives them opportunities to be a much more consistent presence in their children’s lives in ways that children value most—such as attending a recital, accompanying them on a school trip, watching a soccer game, attending teacher conferences, or racing to the school when a child is injured or sick. A poor man does not typically have a job that allows him family flexibility, and taking time off to attend children’s activities can get him fired.

After Moravcsik’s older son got mixed up with bad company, was skipping school, failing some classes, and even got arrested, Moravcsik reasoned that more money or more “things” were not what his son needed most: More meaningful parental involvement, which he could afford, was what his son needed. He wrote:

In my years as lead parent, I have gotten the kids out of the house in the morning; enforced bedtimes at night; monitored computer and TV use; attempted to ensure that homework got done right; encouraged involvement in sports and music; attended the baseball games, piano lessons, plays, and concerts that resulted; and kept tabs on social lives. To this day, I am listed first on emergency forms; I am the parent who drops everything in the event of a crisis. These tasks aren’t intrinsically difficult, and my to-do list is far shorter than that of parents who cannot afford household help. Yet the role has unavoidably taken a toll on my professional productivity.

These calculations and decisions are out of reach for most poor men. The costs of putting children’s needs first are prohibitive for them; the consequences would be dire indeed. Reducing their workload could mean losing their job. Instead, low-income fathers must work longer hours to afford better housing that could help their children get into a better school and stay out of trouble. Consequently, poor men spend little time at home, and also run the risk of becoming estranged from their families. Some men in this position tend to disengage from their families over time, which can decrease both the financial and emotional support they provide. One of the men we interviewed became estranged from his family after working long hours and getting in trouble with the police. Upon release, he tried to reach out to his 9-year-old daughter, but she wanted nothing to do with him.


THE SOCIAL SCIENCE research suggests that fathers who are positively involved in their children’s lives can make an important difference in their children’s development. The benefits of positive father involvement are not restricted to affluent families. There is tremendous variability in the quality of parenting in low-income families and evidence that low-income fathers can be sensitive and responsive to their children. Fathers may be an untapped resource for reducing disparities in the outcomes of children in low-income families. Unfortunately, the low-wage economy, plus prevailing norms and policy assumptions, may be discouraging many fathers from playing this role, in favor of merely providing financial support. Despite rhetoric about the value of paternal involvement, there is no public support for low-income men’s emotional involvement in their children’s lives.

Decades of research conducted with mostly middle-class mothers have shown that the quality of the relationship a parent shares with their child is fundamental to the well-being of both. Fathers who engage in daily care become attuned to their child’s needs and are able to respond sensitively and engage in interactions that lead to healthy and nurturing relationships. Such a relationship facilitates a secure attachment and provides the growing infant with a sense of security and love that is sustained across the lifespan.

We also know from many studies that fathers tend to engage in more “rough and tumble” play with their children than mothers. Such stimulation, when performed safely, is exciting for infants and contributes to healthy brain development and enhanced social skills. As children age, such play develops into more rough-and-tumble recreation, with both child and father engaging in limit-setting that promotes emotional development. By exploring their own strengths and attending to set boundaries in the context of rough-and-tumble play, children are able to practice self-regulation, or the ability to control emotions and behaviors.

In middle childhood, fathers often challenge their sons and daughters to try new things and tend to encourage autonomy. Such behaviors build confidence and promote independence, both of which help children develop problem-solving skills that facilitate success in academic and social pursuits. At this stage, fathers have been shown to influence self-esteem more than mothers. By fostering independence, fathers lay an important foundation for positive psychosocial development in the future.

In adolescence, fathers continue to serve as an important source of advice and conversation, although the research on this population is sparse. Some fathers may withdraw from their teenagers, either to continue to encourage independence or for other reasons such as stress or feeling unneeded. For example, adolescent girls tend to rely on their mothers more for emotional support during this time, though their relationship with their fathers continues to build their self-esteem and forms a basis for how to relate to members of the opposite sex.

Parents’ support and love for their children pay dividends both in the short and long term. A strong body of correlational (and some experimental) evidence suggests that the quality of the early parent-child relationship builds children’s self-esteem, helps them stay connected to families, prepares them to handle discrimination and bias, and gives them the tools they need to learn and succeed. But this is a tall order. Low-income parents, as do all parents, need help to do this. Our public policy remains focused on closing the income gap between children in high- and low-income families, and on insisting that fathers’ primary role in achieving this goal is through financial contributions. At the same time, our policies pay virtually no attention to the other dimension of being a parent: providing emotional support for children whenever and however they need it, which plants the seed for positive and mutually nurturing relationships. Efforts to engage fathers in Head Start, home visiting, and other parenting programs that focus on helping them develop positive relationships with their children would go a long way in the right direction. Though divorce or single parenthood are sometimes a factor in preventing fathers from emotionally supporting their children, noncustodial fathers could play a far greater role in the lives of their children given more-supportive public policies.


TO TURN THIS SITUATION around we need three things. First, we need to do a better job of helping low-income fathers fulfill what they, mothers, and taxpayers expect them to do—namely, to support their children. A higher minimum wage will help, but many fathers earn substantially more than the minimum wage and still have difficulty sustaining their families and paying their child support.

A better solution is to provide a more generous subsidy for low-income fathers’ wages, especially the wages of nonresident fathers. The 1993 budget dramatically expanded the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), now the largest program in our arsenal to reduce poverty. Because it was intended to reduce poverty through work, the credit depends on earnings, other income, and the number of children. For example, childless workers get up to $500 from the EITC; if the same worker has two kids, the credit is more than ten times as much.

Paradoxically, the EITC treats noncustodial parents, usually fathers, as if they were childless workers even if they pay all the child support they owe, which is not tax-deductible. At the same time, a mother who works and has custody of the children receives as much as $5,500 per year. Because the parent who has custody bears more of the cost of raising children, she should get a bigger EITC than the other parent. But besides helping low-income working parents provide for their children, the EITC is also supposed to encourage work. From this vantage point, the tenfold differential between what mothers and nonresident fathers receive from the EITC makes no sense. So the first thing we need to do is raise the amount nonresident fathers get from the EITC. This is a good start, but it’s only more money; and as we have said, kids need more than money from their dads.

The second thing we must do is to change our social expectations about low-income fathers. We need to fund efforts to include fathers in a variety of settings in which adults are preparing to become parents, children are forming attachments to their parents, both parents and children are learning how to communicate with one another, and parents are learning how to promote their children’s health and development. These settings include prenatal care, well-baby clinics, home-visiting programs, breastfeeding and immunization programs, and early-childhood education programs, especially Head Start, which despite its emphasis on family engagement rarely includes fathers in services that target mothers and children.

Finally, we need to rigorously evaluate the effects of such efforts on mothers, fathers, and children. After doing so, we need to discard what does not work and develop what shows progress. This is the only way we can figure out how to match what is best for mothers, fathers, and taxpayers with what is best for children.

Until legislators and policy-makers recognize that money is not all that low-income men can offer children, and institute these kinds of reforms, low-income fathers who spend little time with their children will remain the iconic image of Papa as a rolling stone.  


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