“Because there’s been such a long history of not serving men, they aren’t used to being able to turn to anyone for help,” Moses said. “A lot of times their experiences with the system have been punitive, so they are reluctant to reach out.”
For now, Frandy’s mother continues to help him with his child support. His grandmother has stepped in to cover the monthly legal fees associated with his arrests. “If I didn’t have family support, I would be beyond struggling,” Frandy said.
Many noncustodial fathers in his situation aren’t so lucky. More aggressive child support enforcement was a key component of welfare reform in the 1990s, said Boggess, of the family-policy center. Because the welfare system was designed to act as a sort of “surrogate husband” to single mothers, the government looked to fathers as a way to get people off the dole, she said.
Now, men across the country owe $111 billion in unpaid child support, according to the Office of Child Support Enforcement. Many have racked up debts in the tens of thousands, Boggess said. But most, like Frandy, make less than $10,000 a year. “These men can’t pay,” she said.
Even if a man can come up with the cash, it may not benefit his children, said Kristin Harknett, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. If a woman receives government cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, any money her children’s father contributes is earmarked to pay back the government.
In some ways, child-support enforcement is actually having a negative effect on children, Harknett said. Mothers often keep fathers from spending time with their children to encourage them to pay up. Many fathers go underground to avoid doing jail time for falling into arrears. Often, as in Frandy’s case, other impoverished family members pick up the bill. “Basically we give money to one poor person, and then we find the nearest poor person connected to that child and ask for it back,” Harknett said.
At 4 p.m. the door to the apartment flew open. Frandy’s four nieces and nephews were home from school. They rushed back to the kitchen, shedding backpacks and shoes as they went. His sister popped her head into the living room.
“Do you want some pasta?” she said. Frandy’s mother had boiled up a pot — half spaghetti noodles, half corkscrew pasta. For the sauce, she opened a can of tomato paste, mixed it with hot sauce and chicken bouillon, and tossed in a chopped up hot dog.
Of the adults in the house, only Frandy’s sister, who works as a security guard, has a steady paycheck. Everyone pitches in for food as they can, and, to fill in the gaps, they rely on a hodgepodge of government benefits. Both Cassie’s and Frandy’s mothers are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. As the custodial parent of the twins, Cassie qualifies for cash benefits. She also uses vouchers from the Women, Infants and Children food-and-nutrition service.
In some ways, the mismatch between family structure and welfare-eligibility requirements work in Cassie and Frandy’s favor. Aside from SNAP, most programs have such low eligibility thresholds that only the poorest single mothers with children qualify, said Lawrence Berger, a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Cohabitating with a boyfriend who is not biologically related to any of the household’s children is the most advantageous setup in most states. The children get the benefit of government help but still have a second adult in the house to bring in cash. If the couple were married, Frandy’s income would be factored into eligibility tests and Cassie might not qualify for help.
Still, money is tight. Most of these government programs aren’t designed to fully meet a family’s needs, Berger said. The average monthly SNAP benefit, for example, provides just $1.50 per meal, according to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.
The biggest flaw in current anti-poverty policies is that they don’t take into account the increasing role that fathers play in children’s lives, Berger said. As mothers go to work at higher rates, fathers are taking on more child-rearing responsibilities. Even if parents are splitting the financial burden, though, only one parent can benefit from anti-poverty programs like SNAP or the earned-income tax credit. So, while mom gets help paying the bills, dad, who is oftentimes just as poor, is held responsible for his share of the costs.
“Helping women and not men creates huge gender asymmetry, which makes it harder for couples to stay together,” said Harvard sociologist Kathryn Edin, author of "Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City." “Men can’t earn enough money to earn a place in the family. They become dispensable.”
Expanding the earned-income tax credit to include non-custodial parents could go a long ways in addressing poverty, Edin said. Not precisely welfare, the EITC is a tax subsidy for low-income workers that increases as wages go up. The idea, she said, is to make good on the promise that “if you work, you won’t be poor.”
“Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if men were rewarded for working?” she said.
Frandy thinks so. He dreams about going to college and starting a career in criminal justice, he said. “I just have to figure out a way.”
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