Low-Income, Non-Residential Fathers and Public Welfare Programs
Studies of the American welfare state typically focus on women or families with children, an understandable orientation given the maternalist nature of this nation’s welfare regime (Skocpol, 1995). A variety of social welfare and social insurance programs are open to men, however, including Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and Medicaid. This study examines a very specific group of men—low-income, non-residential fathers—and their use of public social welfare programs. This population is of particular interest because, first, many have a financial commitment, whether formal or informal, to their children and, second, because their work lives are generally quite unstable, featuring periods of formal and informal employment, illegal work, and often lengthy unemployment (Lein & Schexnayder, 2007; Edin & Lein, 1997). In concert, these factors suggest low-income non-residential fathers have a very real incentive to access formal government supports. This subpopulation has, however, proven difficult to reach for researchers, and is thus underexamined.
Semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted with a convenience sample of 447 low-income non-residential fathers in four American cities. Demographically, respondents identified as White (39%), African American (39%), Latino (12%), and Puerto Rican (10%), and had a mean age of 33. Interviews covered a range of topics, including employment, income, health, housing, and family life. Thematic coding was used to examine what programs low-income non-residential fathers utilize, how they utilize them, and impediments to participation. Conceptually clustered matrices were then used to identify patterns across cases (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Finally, where possible, quantitative data was extracted from the interviews, allowing for a descriptive analysis of the overall sample.
We find that a minority of men in the sample participate in public programs; 13% participate in Food Stamps, 11% participate in Medicaid, 8% participate in SSI, and 4% receive veteran’s benefits. We also find that a strong, internalized neoliberal work ethic moderates participation in public assistance programs. Many interviewed men feel that participating in government programs is shameful or unethical, and would much rather work for minimal wages than receive income from a public source.
Conclusions & Implications
Our findings contrast sharply with popular dialogue on low-income non-residential fathers, who are often portrayed as unwilling to work and merely gaming “the system” for subsistence. Few fathers in our sample are enrolled in public programs, and an internalized work ethic appears to moderate further participation. It is a resource they are hesitant to use, should it be available. Given changes in the low-wage labor market and the collapse of employment opportunities for low-skilled men, our findings have implications for social work practice and policy (Autor, 2010). They suggest that low-income non-residential fathers have few formal, legal supportive resources to which to turn when faced with unemployment.