A widespread stereotype about low-income children is that they have “deadbeat dads.” That is, that their fathers do not live with them and are not involved in bringing them up.
In this study, Urban Institute scholars found that fathers who lived with their children tended to spend more time with them: helping them with homework, taking them to the extracurricular activities, offering emotional support, etc. In this study, we assume that positive fathering is related to child well-being.
The key finding, however, was that this pattern held true for both low-income and high-income residential fathers, flying in the face of the “deadbeat dad” narrative.
While lower-income children are less likely than higher-income children to live with their fathers, we must remember that many poor children do have relationships with their fathers. Our research suggests that those relationships do not appear to vary as much by income as by residential status in terms of fathering practices.
Previous research on fathers’ parenting practices often focused on low-income fathers who do not live with their children and higher-income fathers who do, conflating income and residence status. Using data from the 2011-13 National Survey of Family Growth, we attempt to rectify this issue by examining differences in parenting practices across a greater range of incomes and residential statuses.
Differences in parenting across family income
Our most significant finding is that there are very small differences by income in the parenting behaviors of fathers who live with their children.
Among fathers who do not live with their children:
- Low-income fathers are less likely than higher-income fathers to read to young children and help older children with their homework.
- Only half of low-income fathers have seen their child in the last four weeks. Two-thirds of higher-income fathers have.
Low-income fathers who do not live with their children are eager to be involved in their children’s lives, but struggle to do so for several reasons. Some face barriers to employment, including criminal records, low education, and mental health challenges. And low-income parents often have complex families.
We recommend that responsible fatherhood programs for low-income, nonresidential fathers focus on the importance of reading to children and helping them with their homework, as these parenting practices have been associated with school achievement.
Differences in parenting depending on whether fathers live with children
Regardless of income level, some parenting behaviors varied by whether fathers lived with their children.
- Residential fathers, regardless of income, spend considerably more time with their children than nonresidential fathers, with the gap only widening as the children continue to age.
- Residential fathers were also more responsible and warm than nonresidential fathers, measured in how likely they were to take their child to a doctor’s appointment, put them to bed, praise them, and show them physical affection.
- Overall, we found that fathers who live with their children tend to play a more active role in their lives, which bodes well for their child’s health and development.
When formulating public policy, we must remember that many poor children do have relationships with their fathers and those relationships do not appear to vary as much by income as by residential status in terms of fathering practices. With this in mind, we can develop more effective and supportive policies, which is essential in a society where education is often the most important determinant of adult success.