Low-Income Men at the Margins Caught at the Intersection of Race, Place, and Poverty. Family


Interactions with family and the responsibilities low-income men hold in households can take many forms. As sons, brothers, cousins, uncles, fathers, husbands, partners, and father figures, low-income men are vital to family life. Men’s relationships with children, both within and outside the context of marriage, are a common focus of research on low-income men. Disconnection from family, and children in particular, can be especially harmful to families. We center our discussion of family around topics related to family formation, marriage, and men’s perspectives on fatherhood and father involvement. Men in the population of interest have lower marriage rates. However, they are often fathers, sometimes to children from multiple partners. How men relate to their children and the mother(s) of their children is relevant to men’s ties to institutions and the job market.

Most low-income men age 18 and older are unmarried. The marriage rate in 2008–10 for low-income men was 39 percent, compared with 62 percent for higher-income men. The never-married rate was 42 versus 25 percent, respectively. For low-income white men, the marriage rate in 2009 was 39 percent; for low-income African American men, it was 25 percent. The marriage rate was higher for low-income Hispanic men: 48 percent. Foreign-born Hispanic men generally had higher marriage rates than native-born Hispanics (57 percent versus 31 percent, respectively, among low-income Hispanics).10

Similar to marriage, family structure varies significantly by race, ethnicity, and immigration status. Hispanic children with immigrant parents are more likely to live in two-parent families than white and Hispanic children with native-born parents. Most African American children are born to unmarried parents. Nearly three-quarters (72.8 percent) of African American children were born to unmarried parents in 2009, compared with 29 percent of white children and 53.2 percent of Hispanic children (Martin et al. 2010). The share of nonmarital births has risen for all groups, from 24 percent for African American infants and 3.1 percent for white infants in 1965 (Akerlof and Yellen 1996).


Understanding Men’s Perspectives

Research examines the benefits and costs of marriage and reasons disconnected low-income men, especially, are less attached to the institution. Some research to date dispels popular views about low-income men and marriage—for example, finding that low-income men are not averse to marriage but are less likely to enter into the institution when they are less able to contribute financially (Ahituv and Lerman 2007; Roy 2005).

Like marriage, men’s paternal identity may be strongly shaped by their ability to provide economically for their children (Roy 2006). Sociopolitical factors, including limited jobs, welfare policies deterring cohabitation, and mass incarceration, have affected father involvement (Gadsden, Wortham, and Turner 2003). Still, although less often publicized, some men do provide consistent and stable care for their children (Waller 2002).

Other lessons drawn from ethnographic and other qualitative research are how strongly limited economic opportunities shape the ways men view the socially desirable package of marriage, career, family, and homeownership; and how men interact with their partners around financial matters (Roy 2005). In addition, father involvement is often influenced by men’s relationships with their own fathers and responses to the parenting they received (e.g., stable relationship with a father who was present, experiences with a father whose presence was limited, or childhoods with a completely absent father; see Roy 2006).

Several theories address reasons for nonmarital child bearing and limited father involvement. A now-classic theory suggests that employment declines contributed to the increased tendency to rely on sexual prowess and exploitation outside marriage to affirm manhood (Anderson 1989). Revisiting this topic and the notion of culture, other researchers question leading explanations centered around declining employment or, for African American males in particular, cultural patterns rooted in slavery. Small and Newman (2001) argue that there is insufficient evidence for these theories. They call for greater attention to demographic shifts in urban centers, focus beyond the midwestern and northeastern United States, and consideration of urban poverty from a cross-cultural perspective.

Research also highlights the diverse roles men assume and how common perceptions are often limiting and one-sided. Although not as common as single custodial mothers, men also become single custodial parents (Coles 2009; Hamer and Marchioro 2002). However, several factors that do not seem to affect women may limit fathers’ opportunities to gain full custody. O’Donnell and colleagues (2005) describe how courts in the child welfare system often view fathers with suspicion and mistrust. Gender bias favoring mothers as the primary caregivers also limits fathers’ chances. Further, because fathers tend to be less familiar with social services—which are mainly designed for mothers and children—they are less willing to navigate the confusing bureaucratic child welfare system, and therefore less likely to register for custody of their children.

Regardless of custody, many fathers may be more involved than has been previously documented. Edin, Tach, and Mincy (2009) find higher-than-expected involvement from birth to age 5. Unlike the perception that fathers have children and virtually disappear from the children’s lives, Edin and colleagues’ research suggests men stay involved but may reduce time spent with children if their relationship with the children’s mother changes. Moreover, when a father becomes involved in another (romantic) relationship, his involvement with biological children may decrease. In some cases, assuming the father role with children from a current relationship may substantially reduce men’s time and attention toward biological children.

From the vantage point of a child’s well-being, while children are not necessarily without a father figure as popular opinion would believe, the father figure in their lives tends to be cyclical rather than stable, which could diminish overall well-being (Edin et al. 2009). This is supported in other work that finds low-income mothers may rely on nonresidential biological fathers, intimate partners, male family members, and friends to help their young children when no father figure is present in the household (Richardson 2010; Roy and Burton 2007).

Family Life and Government Policies

Child support enforcement policies and the earned income tax credit (EITC) are two government programs with special implications for low-income men and fathers. Whereas low-income women and children have been the primary targets and beneficiaries of the policies, economists and other scholars see potential for using the policies more effectively to help low-income men as well (Mincy, Lewis, and Han 2006). Proposals such as expanding the EITC so noncustodial fathers (already required to pay child support) may also claim nonresident children on their taxes are intended to increase earnings and encourage employment (Mincy, Klempin, and Schmidt 2011). Qualitative research helps illuminate fathers’ perspectives regarding child support enforcement policies (Pate 2009, 2010). Concerning efforts to increase compliance with child support payments, research suggests earnings and payments may increase when low-income parents behind on their child support are provided with case management and employment assistance (Sorensen 2011). Currently, several states operate work-oriented programs geared toward low-income, noncustodial parents.11 These supports and incentives are designed to increase men’s economic support for their children and promote economic advancement for the men themselves.

Research on low income men and their family life shows patterns of disruption and instability, particularly with respect to children. Poor employment prospects and challenges in supporting a household may be critical factors in reducing both marriage and men’s presence in children’s lives. The research raises important questions about effective strategies for keeping low-income men connected and engaged with families. The great diversity in men’s roles and relationships with children (whether biological or unrelated) and the common misperceptions about the type and extent of men’s involvement suggest we have more to learn. How might an improved understanding of men’s relationships inform approaches that might be taken to increase the likelihood that more fathers (and father figures) play a more integral role in children’s lives? To the extent that the connection to family involves marriage, what approaches would encourage and support this type of union among low-income couples? How do employment and education factor into the equation?


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