Nonresident Father Involvement and Child Food Insecurity
In 2011, more than one in ten U.S. children lived in a household reporting food insecurity among children. Food insecurity in childhood is associated with numerous negative health and psychosocial outcomes. Children who live in female-headed households are at triple the risk of experiencing food insecurity than children living in married parent households. More than half of children in the US will spend time outside of a two-parent family, and more than one-quarter of all children are currently living with only one parent, while the other parent (most often the father) lives elsewhere. Nonresident fathers, through their contributions of material support and their involvement with children, can potentially reduce children’s risk of food insecurity and improve outcomes for children in single-parent families.
This study takes advantage of two nationally representative, longitudinal datasets, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort (ECLS-B) and Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K), to examine the impact of nonresident fathers’ involvement on children’s food insecurity during early and middle childhood. For each dataset, several waves (4 in the ECLS-B and 3 in the ECLS-K) are combined to create pooled cross-sectional samples of approximately 7,000 observations on approximately 3,000 individual children in each dataset. Food insecurity is measured identically in both datasets, using the full 10-item Child Food Security Scale developed by the USDA, and is constructed as: (1) the raw score of mothers’ affirmative answers to these 10 items; (2) as a binary measure for any child food insecurity (2+ affirmative answers); and (3) as a binary measure for very low child food security (5+ affirmative answers). Fathers’ provision of formal support and informal support (ECLS-B), the regularity of financial support (ECLS-K), fathers’ provision of in-kind support, and frequency of contact with children (both datasets) as included as our main variables of interest. We control for a number of family sociodemographic and psychosocial characteristics, estimate models with fathers’ contact at the prior wave, and estimate individual fixed effects models to test the robustness of our results and to address potential endogeneity.
We find that neither the provision of formal support or informal support, nor the frequency of nonresident fathers’ contact with children is associated with the risk of food insecurity among children. However, we find that a one standard deviation increase in the frequency of nonresident fathers’ in-kind support provision is associated with a 2 percentage point decrease in the likelihood of child food insecurity for children in early and middle childhood. This result is robust to numerous alternate specifications in both datasets.
These findings suggest that nonresident fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives can be a protective factor in shielding them from one of the most severe consequences of living in poverty: food insecurity. Policies aimed at increasing nonresident fathers’ responsibility for children must focus on both financial and non-financial contributions that fathers make to their children’s lives.