How Anti-Poverty Programs Marginalize Fathers

Based on decades-old stereotypes that unmarried dads are “deadbeats,” the majority of welfare programs almost exclusively serve women and children.
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Matt Rourke/AP Photo

The 10-month-old twins call Frandy “Da Da.” He changes their diapers, mixes up their formula, and helps shoulder the burden of providing food, clothing, and medical care.

But the girls aren’t his children; Frandy’s girlfriend Cassie was pregnant when they started dating. When, a few months later, the two decided to move in together, “I knew raising the kids was part of the package,” said Frandy, a 23-year-old from inner-city Boston.

His own 6-year-old daughter lives across town with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Frandy sends a check every month.

Such complex family arrangements are becoming increasingly common, particularly among the poor, like Frandy and Cassie. Nearly 40 percent of unwed parents with low education levels share childrearing responsibilities with a co-residential boyfriend or girlfriend, according to a 2013 report from the United States Census Bureau. Oftentimes these couples share at least one biological child, but in 27 percent of relationships, either mom or dad is stepping in to raise children they didn’t conceive.  

U.S. government programs designed to help such families, however, haven’t evolved with the population. Based on decades-old stereotypes that single mothers are raising children alone and single dads are “deadbeats,” the majority of United States anti-poverty programs almost exclusively serve women and children, said Jacquelyn Boggess, co-director of the Center for Family Policy and Practice, a Wisconsin-based think tank that focuses on supporting low-income parents. The welfare system, as a result, can become a muddled mess of rearranging rather than relieving poverty. Single, non-custodial fathers bear the brunt. But dads don’t suffer alone. Because the poor pull together to support one another, everyone absorbs the pinch.

“It’s like seven people in bed together, sharing a very small blanket,” Boggess said. “If you move the blanket over to cover up one person who’s chilly, someone else is going to get cold.”

***

Sprawled across the width of a bare mattress on a recent afternoon, one leg under a blanket that’s coming apart at the seams and one leg out, Cassie was trying to take a nap. But her little girls weren’t having it.

Next to her, one twin was bouncing up and down. “Unnn-gah!” she squealed.

From a crib across the room, twin number two replied with a squawk.

Frandy, Haitian by descent, is a barrel-chested man with long dreads he keeps swept back in a low ponytail. Hearing the noise, he poked his head into the bedroom. “You OK, babe?” he said. He and Cassie can’t afford their own place, so the family of four shares a bedroom in his mother’s apartment in Dorchester. His sister lives in the next room over with his four nieces and nephews.

“I can’t get any sleep with them around,” said Cassie, groggily. “They’ll just go back and forth all afternoon.”

Four chubby little arms reached for Frandy. He scooped the babies up. One laid her dimpled cheek on his shoulder. One laced her fingers through his braids.

Frandy sees his relationship with Cassie’s twins as a second chance at fatherhood. He was 16 when his girlfriend told him, standing in the stairwell of their high school, that she was pregnant. He was scared — scared that he wouldn’t be able to support the baby, scared to tell his mother. Mostly, though, he recalled, “I loved my girlfriend and I thought I was going to be with her forever.”

He wanted to be the kind of father his father wasn’t: present. He quit smoking weed with friends, got a job at Toys “R” Us, and started stuffing his un-cashed paychecks into a piggy bank.

But despite his efforts, the couple called it quits before his daughter was a month old. “We couldn’t stop fighting,” he said. They attempted to co-parent for a few months more, until, one day, Frandy came over to find his baby’s mother with a bulging bruise on her forehead. He attacked the man who was responsible, a mutual friend, and landed himself behind bars for attempted murder. He served 22 months in prison. After he got caught carrying a weapon while on parole, he served an additional three years.

Historically, funding for both government and nonprofit programs to help men has been scarce, said Joy Moses, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. A recent survey from the Center for Family Policy and Practice shows the top two ways that nonprofit service providers connect with men is through parole and child support enforcement programs. “As a low-income man, you almost have to get in trouble to get help,” Moses said.

In prison, Frandy signed up for every program that would take him. He completed his GED and volunteered to speak to at-risk youth “to help others avoid my mistakes.”

But his baby grew up without him. For a year, his ex-girlfriend refused to bring her to visit, so Frandy’s mother petitioned for permission to do it herself. It was a no-contact visitation. The two were separated by glass.

“How you doing, beautiful?” Frandy said, waving his hand.

The little girl just stared at him, sucking on her pacifier. By the time he was released last year, his ex-girlfriend didn’t want the child to have anything to do with him.

***

Frandy took the twins to the front room and sat on the couch, balancing one girl on each knee. As he told his story, he jiggled the babies up and down. His knees stilled, though, when he spoke about his crimes. Eyes downcast, big shoulders hunched forward like he was trying to collapse into himself, he said, “I’m ashamed of what I did and of who I was.”

Behind bars, Frandy couldn’t make money, but his child-support payments still came due every month. His mother, an immigrant who arranges flowers for neighborhood weddings and funerals, scraped up the money. Since his release, Frandy has been cleaning condos. In a good month, he can make between $1,000 and $2,000. But the work isn’t consistent. In the year he’s been free, he’s frequently gone weeks without a call. He’s applied to dozens of jobs and registered with a temp agency, but, as a felon, he has struggled.

Even without a criminal record, the job market isn’t favorable for men like him: black, with just a GED. The economy is shifting and the blue-collar manufacturing jobs that have put food on the table for uneducated workers for decades are disappearing. During the recession, men lost twice as many jobs as women, and they’re still struggling to claw their way out. Black men have the highest unemployment rate in the country, 13 percent.

A number of prominent nonprofit organizations, such as STRIVE International, specialize in helping men like Frandy acquire job skills and get on their feet. In recent years, several foundations, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, have launched initiatives targeting young minority men. Frandy hasn’t heard of any of them.

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Elizabeth Stuart is a journalist based in Cairo, Egypt.

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