What the Recession Did to American Fathers

The number of men without jobs is larger than in previous downturns, especially for dads who don't live with their kids.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Today the vast majority of children in single-parent families live with their mothers, but not their fathers. Until the late 1990s, Americans relied upon welfare payments from taxpayers and child-support payments from nonresident fathers to reduce the poverty rate among these children, which is twice as high as the poverty rate among children who live with both their fathers and mothers. Since then we have required single mothers to work, supplemented their meager wages by a $50 billion program called the Earned Income Tax Credit, and strengthened efforts to ensure that nonresident fathers pay their child support.

As many recent studies have shown, however, except for the very highest earners, the wages of most men are stagnant or falling, making it extremely difficult for some nonresident fathers to pay all the child-support expected of them. For men with lower earnings this had been occurring for two and a half decades before the 1990s economic boom, when wages grew modestly. But with the 2001 recession, wages stagnated or began to fall again and have been doing so ever since. As a result of the increasing number of economically vulnerable nonresident fathers, the late 1990s strategy—which held so much promise—is becoming increasingly less effective.

Once primarily the consequence of divorce, single-parent families have grown mostly because increasing proportions of adults—especially those who are young and without college training—forgo marriage entirely and instead have children while cohabiting or in romantic relationships. As a result, non-marital births—now over 40 percent of all births—have soared. Because cohabiting and romantic parental relationships do not last as long in the U.S. as they do in Europe, the number of nonresident fathers has also soared to about 9 million. More than half of these fathers are economically vulnerable and they are a much more diverse population than the poor, inner-city, mostly minority fathers, who have been the focus of most studies on this subject.

On top of the long-term erosion of male earnings, the recession that started in 2007 was like a full blast of wind in the face of a biker already peddling furiously to climb up a long and steep hill. Male joblessness rose more than female joblessness during every recession since the early 1980s. However, the Great Recession had the twin distinction of creating the largest postwar male jobless rate and the largest male-female jobless rate gap. Because of the disproportionate harm the recession caused men, Mark Perry, in his testimony before the members of Congress, coined the term “mancession.” One reason for this disproportionate harm is that manufacturing and construction—traditionally fields that have been male dominated—were hit particularly hard by the Great Recession. Unfortunately, these industries have also been particularly slow to recover and may never achieve their pre-recession employment levels.

Not only was the increase in male joblessness larger than in previous recessions, but its effects are far from over. According to labor economists at the Federal Reserve, the male unemployment rate rose from just over four percent to 11 percent between December 2007 and August 2009. As of November 2014, nearly one out of three male adults and young adults looking for work reported that they had been unemployed for at least six months. Unemployed workers have been without work for an average of 34 weeks, the highest rate of long-term joblessness since the federal government began collecting such data.

Long-term joblessness has been particularly high among men between the ages of 20 and 44, who are likely to be the fathers of young children. Jobless men in this age group have been looking for work for an average of 26 to 33 weeks. These long jobless spells eat into their savings, destroy credit worthiness, and, in some cases, result in the loss of their homes. Thus, the low-wage path on which young men have traveled for four decades has been compounded by long-term unemployment.

According to a survey by the Pew Research Center conducted 30 months after the recession, the downturn caused layoffs, pay cuts, reduced hours, or involuntary part-time employment for more than half of the American workforce. About a third of the adult workforce was laid off at least once during the recession. Carl Van Horn and his colleagues at Rutgers University’s Heldrich Center have been surveying the job-related attitudes of American workers over the last 15 years. Three-fourths of Americans who responded to the Heldrich Center Survey in September 2010 had lost a job, or had a friend or family member who lost a job since the recession began. Although no nationally representative sample exists, many vulnerable nonresident fathers we interviewed were laid off because of what they described as a “slowdown” in the business of their former employer.

Finding a new job was difficult for most Americans who were laid off during the recession. National data show that in 2010, it took the average laid-off worker 33 weeks to find a job. The Heldrich Center’s record of the consequences of the recession began in March 2009, just three months before the recession officially ended. Nevertheless, two years later, they found that a third of workers who had lost their jobs by March 2009 were still looking for work, and more than one in six had become discouraged and had stopped looking for work altogether. Later snapshots show that just over one in five workers who had been displaced by August 2009 had found new jobs almost 18 months later, and just over one in eight found full-time jobs. Just as the unemployment rate of men rose to higher levels than the unemployment rate of women, men who were laid off also found it more difficult to find new jobs than women.

Similarly, some laid-off working-poor fathers found another job not long after being laid off, only to be laid off again within a few months. Princeton University economist Henry Farber, who has been studying displaced workers during every recession since the early 1980s, found that about one in five displaced workers experienced such repeated layoffs between 2007 and 2009. Similarly, more than one in three workers interviewed by the Pew Research Center Survey had at least two layoffs during the recent recession, and two in eight had been laid off three or more times.

Among the working-poor fathers who were still employed, many also suffered a slowdown or cut in pay because of the recession. Almost a quarter of currently employed workers who responded to the Pew Research Center Survey took a pay cut, with full time workers only slightly less likely to do so than part-time workers, men more likely than women, and workers in families with income less than $30,000 more likely to take pay cuts than those in families with higher incomes.

Experts are just coming to grips with the consequences of the recession for American workers and their families, including the characteristics of workers (and families) who were hurt most. We know, for example, that the recession was harder on men than women. In particular, the increase in the unemployment rate was higher for men than it was for women, and this has been true in every recession since the early 1980s. After being laid off, more men left the labor force than women, and it took longer for unemployed men to find new jobs than it took unemployed women. We also know that employment and earnings of younger workers and minorities fell more sharply than employment and earnings among older and white workers. Studies also show that the lower-income and less-educated workers suffered more-severe consequences than higher income and more-educated workers.

But we do not know if nonresident fathers and their families suffered more or less than other fathers or other men. One way to answer this question is to focus on the characteristics of nonresident fathers in relation to those of other fathers or other men. Even this is difficult because collecting data on nonresident fathers is so difficult.

Society expects (and the law requires) nonresident fathers to support their children financially. Therefore, men who fail to support their children tend to deny that they are nonresident fathers. This results in three kinds of distortions in the picture of nonresident fathers that emerges from large surveys: first, the surveys miss nonresident fathers; second, those surveyed tend to be better off with those hidden who are more economically vulnerable; third, the accounts of nonresident fathers are sometimes tainted by a mother's feelings. For all these reasons, interviews conducted by researchers who persuade nonresident fathers that they will not be criticized or penalized for their failure to support their children financially are important ways to fill out what we learn about nonresident fathers from large national surveys and census data.

Researchers at the University of Bowling Green tried to assess the most accurate source of large survey information about nonresident fathers. They looked at three large national surveys, two of which asked men two questions: (1) if they were nonresident fathers, and (2) if they provided financial support for their nonresident children. In both surveys the second question immediately follows the first question. The third survey, called the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), asked men the same two questions, but at very different points in the survey interview. Estimates of the number of nonresident fathers from NSFG were substantially larger than estimates from the two other surveys. According to the survey, which was undertaken between 2006 and 2010, there were almost nine million nonresident fathers in the United States in the years bracketing the recent recession. After reproducing this estimate, we analyzed NSFG data on men to understand how nonresident fathers differed from resident fathers and other men in terms of the characteristics likely to influence how vulnerable they were to the recession.

Almost one in three men was a resident father; just over one in nine was a nonresident father. The average nonresident father was about 35 years old, about six years older than the average man, but about the same age as the average resident father. In other respects, however, nonresident fathers were more economically vulnerable than resident fathers and other men. More than five of every eight nonresident fathers had a high school diploma or less, while fewer than four of every nine resident fathers, and the total population of all men, completed this little schooling. Finally, more than half of nonresident fathers were black or Latino, while less than one in three resident fathers were men of color.

Because they were more likely to be men of color and less likely to have post-secondary schooling, the recession probably took a bigger toll on nonresident fathers than it did on resident fathers. For example, more resident fathers were employed than their nonresident counterparts, and of those nonresident fathers who were employed, more than half earned less than $40,000 annually. Only a third of resident fathers had such low earnings.

Focusing our attention on this lower-earnings group underscores how vulnerable they were to the recession and the trends in play over the prior four decades resulting in declining earnings and labor force participation, especially among less-educated men and men of color. While fewer nonresident fathers earning less than $40,000 were white, white men made up more than a third of nonresident fathers earning $40,000 or more. Employment rates among nonresident fathers earning less than $40,000 were high, but employment rates among nonresident fathers earning $40,000 or more were even higher. Longer hours were partly responsible for the higher earnings of the latter group since almost all worked full-time, while fewer nonresident fathers earning less than $40,000 were full-time workers.

Family ties compounded the difficulties faced by more economically vulnerable nonresident fathers. Fewer of the more vulnerable group were married or living with a female partner, and were therefore unable to share household expenses. Despite having less money coming in, the more vulnerable group also had as many resident children and more nonresident children to care for. That’s right, more than two out of five nonresident fathers who supported their kids through the courts were the family men working in low- and moderate-wage jobs with pictures of their wives (or partners) and children on their walls. Unless the mother of the child in the picture worked, his job paying less than $40,000 a year was barely enough to sustain the family at twice the poverty level. However, counting the child support owed for his kid (or kids), the family’s financial picture looked a lot less rosy. What’s more, nonresident fathers with lower earnings were more likely to be responsible for three or more nonresident children than nonresident fathers with higher earnings.

These five million economically vulnerable nonresident fathers (about nine percent of adult males between 15 and 44 years old in the United States) are a far larger group than the inner-city fathers who have been the focus of much research over the past few decades. The overwhelming majority worked full-time before, during, and after the recession, though many had higher paying jobs before the recession. Further, though men of color and less-educated men were overrepresented in this group, four of 11 vulnerable nonresident fathers, by our designation, were white, and more than six of 11 had some post-secondary education. Given their characteristics, particularly those that are known to affect employment and earnings (e.g., race and education) we suspect that nonresident fathers experienced more hardship than most men and most fathers, but perhaps not drastically so.

Another way to gauge the relative impact of the recession on nonresident fathers is to estimate whether their employment is lower than the employment of resident fathers, when two otherwise identical fathers live in the same city (and therefore are subject to the same labor-market conditions). We made such estimates using data on resident and nonresident fathers from a relatively new Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Survey. Our estimates show that nonresident fathers who live in cities with high unemployment rates are four percent less likely to be employed than resident fathers living in the same city.

Many of the fathers we interviewed described a gradual downward spiral of their employment status and earnings after first being laid off. Such cascading was also evident among many workers who responded to national surveys about the Great Recession. Princeton University economist Henry Farber notes that among the 50 percent of job losers who found new jobs after being laid off during the recession, there was a substantial increase, as compared with previous recessions, in the proportion of full-time job losers who were working part-time in their new job at least six months after the recession. The Pew Research Center Survey shows that just over a quarter of workers who lost and found a job during the first 30 months of the recent recession replaced a full-time job with a part-time job. Of course, moving from a full-time job to a part-time job usually meant lower pay and losing benefits, such as pensions and health insurance. The Heldrich Center Survey shows that over half of the workers who were able to find new jobs after being laid off took a pay cut; others found jobs paying the same, but offering fewer hours than the jobs they had prior to the Great Recession.

Beside reduced earnings, job satisfaction was generally lower for workers who lost and found a job during the recession. Additionally for many who had been unemployed for long periods, more than three-quarters said they would be willing to change careers in order to find a job. Among re-employed workers interviewed by the Pew Research Center, three out of five had already changed careers or had thought out about doing so, and more than one in three enrolled in a job-training programs or went back to school.

Although unemployed workers cut back on expenses, bills still mounted. According to the Pew Research Center Survey at the beginning of the recession, in 2008, only one out of 15 American workers said they could not meet their basic expenses. By May 2010, one of nine Americans admitted having such trouble. So they depleted their savings and unemployment insurance, if any, and doubled up or borrowed from friends and family. Some even applied for food stamps to help them get by. Almost a quarter of Americans earning under $30,000 had little money to meet daily expenses. Many unemployed workers doubled up in more affordable housing arrangements with friends and relatives, and borrowed money from friends and family.

The working-poor fathers we interviewed who found no comparable work after losing their regular jobs during the recession experienced the same hardships and tried to recover in the same ways. For example, Franco, a working-poor father we interviewed, would like to follow in the footsteps of his children and go to college to get a business degree. Then, he would start a business of his own, a limousine service. But his more immediate concern is to find a regular job after being unemployed for four months. His family is on a very tight budget. To make ends meet, he and his wife are doubling up with her daughter and son-in-law, and Franco is using his unemployment benefits to contribute to household expenses.

However, Franco’s experience looking for work differs from the typical experiences reported by the Pew and Heldrich Center studies in several important ways. When Franco had been unemployed in the past, his child-support debts would mount and become one of his chief concerns. So he worked off the books to pay his child support debt. However, his employer took advantage of him, and he does not want that experience again. He learned to reduce his child-support debt whenever he was unemployed. He was also afraid that he might be injured or be laid off, but off-the-books work did not provide workman’s compensation or unemployment insurance. Now that his children were no longer minors, he no longer had to pay child support, so he avoided off the books work. From our research, we saw that these are typical experiences for working-poor fathers during the Great Recession.

This post has been adapted from Ronald Mincy, Monique Jethwani, and Serena Klempin's new book Failing Our Fathers.