Abstract: Influence of Systemic Biases on the Experience of Low-Income Fathers during COVID-19 (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Influence of Systemic Biases on the Experience of Low-Income Fathers during COVID-19

Friday, January 13, 2023
Maryvale A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Michael Hoffmeister, MSW, Field Faculty and Doctoral Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Laura Zimmerman, PhD Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Tova Walsh, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison
Background/Purpose: Families were forced to manage extreme adversity during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, little is known about the experiences of low-income and noncustodial fathers or the mechanisms they used to cope. We aimed to fill this gap in the literature by exploring the pandemic-related experiences of low-income fathers, many of whom had less than full custody of some or all of their children. In particular, we aimed to understand the ways in which their social, cultural, and economic circumstances influenced their experience as parents during the pandemic and the services or supports they were eligible to receive.

Methods: The current analysis utilizes qualitative data collected as part of a mixed-methods study. Participants (age 18+, father of 1+ children aged 0-18, resident of Milwaukee, WI) were recruited in partnership with the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative and collaborating fatherhood programs in Milwaukee. In total, 38 fathers participated in one of six focus groups that sought to gain more detailed understanding of their parenting experiences during the pandemic. Focus group participants ranged in age from 21 to 60 years old, 89.4% identified as non-Hispanic Black, and 57.9% report completion of some college or less. Slightly less than half of fathers who participated report being single and 50% reported having between 1-3 children. Focus group transcripts were content coded in an iterative process by multiple coders to identify themes in the data, with differences resolved through discussion.

Results: Findings underscore the ways in which systemic biases and assumptions about low-income fathers impacted their ability to have access to and financially support their children during the COVID-19 pandemic. This study identifies five themes regarding influences on fathers’ experience: fathers identified challenges with providing childcare while also maintaining employment; monitoring schoolwork without receiving guidance from school staff; maintaining their financial stability through job loss, garnished wages, and inaccessible cash assistance; accessing child support offices and family court to assist in negotiation of child access and financial requirements of child support; and managing health-related concerns when co-parents did not take the pandemic seriously. Themes highlight the biases in our systems that assume that fathers are primary breadwinner rather than primary or co-equal caregiver, that they have access to and literacy with technology, and that they only deserve support under certain circumstances. Fathers explicitly linked their experiences to systemic racism and the persistent devaluation and exclusion of Black fathers.

Conclusions and Implications: This study highlights the ways in which systemic biases exacerbated the adversity experienced by low-income fathers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Findings suggest that policy changes that resulted from the pandemic and attempts to support those who were most in need fell short. Instead, the heteronormative, hegemonic, and racially biased assumptions of need and deservingness forced many low-income fathers to choose between socioeconomic stability and relationships with their child(ren). These findings underscore the need for policies that are more responsive to the needs of low-income, noncustodial fathers and promote employment and financial stability while also prioritizing fathers’ ability to maintain stable, nurturing relationships with their children.