Journal Issue: Welfare to Work Volume 7 Number 1 Spring 1997
Can Fathers Pay?
The relatively low level of support going to unmarried households may reflect the characteristics of men who father children out of wedlock, as well as the vigor of child support enforcement. Perhaps unwed fathers simply lack resources. Studies using national data sets have generally shown that men who become fathers when young and unmarried have less education and lower earnings later in life than do men who delay fatherhood.15-18 A study of births in Baltimore in 1983 found that the partners of urban, teenage mothers (who were predominately unmarried) had lower levels of education when their child was born than did the partners of women who had a birth after their teen years.19
On the other hand, there is also evidence that many absent fathers are significantly older than their female partners and do, or will eventually, have resources to provide child support. Studies indicate that about 60% of new unmarried teen mothers have partners who are beyond their teen years.15,20 Moreover, even young fathers will mature, and most will find work and secure a steady income. One study of noncustodial parents in all types of families found that current child support formulas would require fathers to pay three times what they owed in child support in 1983.21
Another study focused on recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) who had not been awarded child support, using administrative records in 11 states to determine the financial resources of the absent fathers.22 The case files of women who had received welfare for a minimum of two years and lacked support orders were reviewed to find cases that included the father's Social Security number in the file. The earnings data kept by the Social Security Administration revealed that many of the men had substantial incomes and should have been able to pay a meaningful portion of the AFDC benefit received by the family. This study had several limitations, however. Its sample was restricted to men with known Social Security numbers, so it could capture fathers' incomes for fewer than half of the cases without support orders. Moreover, the study included only earnings reported to the Social Security Administration during a single year, missing any change that might take place over the father's lifetime.
The longitudinal data needed to examine earnings growth were available to researchers who used court records from Wisconsin to consider the earnings of a sample of men over the first seven years after their divorce or paternity suit.23 Demonstrating the importance of paternity establishment and child support enforcement, the researchers found that absent fathers, even those whose children were born outside of marriage, experienced substantial income growth over this seven-year period. Of course, these are men whose paternity was established and whose partners apparently believed there was some chance of obtaining meaningful amounts of support, judging from their willingness to file the suit in court. It may be that men in this category have more income growth than, say, men who did not acknowledge their children and whose partners believed they had no chance of obtaining support.