Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

17193 The Parenting Role of African American Fathers In the Context of Urban Poverty

Thursday, January 12, 2012: 2:30 PM
Cabin John (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer M. Threlfall, MSW, Doctoral Student, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Kristen D. Seay, MSW, Doctoral Student, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Patricia L. Kohl, PhD, Assistant Professor, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO

African American families live disproportionately in neighborhoods characterized by concentrated poverty (Turner, 2009). Fathers in these communities must confront additional stressors in their parenting tasks including poverty, unemployment and depression, which can lead to reduced involvement with their children (Woldoff & Cina, 2007; Davis et al., 2009). Father involvement is important in promoting cognitive development, educational attainment and general well-being in children, including in low-income families (Black & Dubowitz, 1999; Coley, 2001). This qualitative study examines how fathers construct their parenting role in the context of urban poverty. It addresses two questions: 1) what barriers do African American fathers perceive in the task of effectively parenting in the context of urban poverty? 2) what do they perceive their parenting role to be?


Flyers were used to recruit African American fathers with a child between 4 and 12 who they saw at least twice a month. Five focus groups with 29 fathers and 19 individual interviews were conducted. Of the fathers, 50% were single and not living with a partner, 33% were divorced or separated, 57% were unemployed, and 80% had completed high school or received a GED. The mean age was 37. Data were analyzed through the use of inductive thematic analysis. The racially diverse coding team developed the codebook through an iterative process in which key ideas and recurrent themes were allowed to emerge. NVivo 9.0 was used to systematically code the transcripts using themes including facilitators/ barriers to relationship with child, child support/ money, and the participants view of his role as father.


Poverty was seen as a barrier to parenting in that it limited the activities that fathers could provide for their children and restricted non-resident fathers' ability to travel to see their children. Some men reported a preoccupation with money or unemployment as taking their focus away from their children. The perceived unfairness of the child support system was seen as compounding these problems. Many saw their own fathering role as fundamentally different from that of other men because of the urban context. They identified with the provider role, but also aspired that their children learn the skills necessary to escape poverty. They believed they must teach their children to earn their own living, realizing that in their urban environment there are few resources to assist them in reaching their full potential. There was a desire for these life lessons to be learned from the father, and not on the streets.

Conclusions and Implications.

This study indicates that poverty can limit the parenting ability of African American fathers by reducing their capacity to provide and imposing a psychological burden. The low income urban environment shapes the role of the father as teacher. In creating programs to promote father involvement in low income urban families, practitioners must take account of the ecological context, addressing, for example, issues of employment and the child support system in addition to parenting skills.