More on why low-income fathers leave but don’t “flee”

This morning I posted about “reasons to pause before judging other parents.”  Within ten minutes two readers had replied with thoughtful, sharply worded critiques of my argument.  In both cases they said that it seemed like I was countenancing bad behavior among low-income men, either by ignoring the plain facts that many low-income fathers are uninvolved with their children, or by excusing their behavior as the result of “circumstances” beyond their control.

Just now I was lying down to nap with Jay but I couldn’t fall asleep.  I was nagged by the thought that I’d been sloppy in acquitting my argument.  So once Jay fell asleep I tiptoed out of the guest room and back upstairs to my computer with two thoughts in mind.

First, I want to share more evidence from Kathryn Edin’s research which explains the context in which nonmarital relationships fall apart and men fade from the picture in the years after a baby is born.

Edin begins with the generous assumptions that most couples want to make things work and most men want to be good fathers.  Why does she assume this?  Because that’s what they consistently say in interview reports and, after cross-referencing interview responses, she thinks it’s reasonable to take them at their words.  So for her, the puzzle goes like this: Men and women who’ve just had a baby together want to make their relationship work and the men want to be involved fathers, but in the overwhelming majority of cases neither of those things ends up happening. So what goes wrong?

She cites three factors that lead relationships to fail and/or prevent couples from marrying:

  1. Norms about the standard of living required for marriage.  Edin reports that low-income couples believe that they need to be financially stable before they can get married.  Their definition of financial stability hues closely to what other sociologists have referred to as the middle-class ideal- an ability to afford a house with a garage, two cars, and savings in the bank.  Without this degree of financial stability low-income couples tend to believe that the stress of making ends meet is going to take a terminal toll on their marriages which seems like a reasonable, pragmatic way to look at things.
  2. Relationship quality.  Edin writes that most nonmarital births occur “in the context of relationships of perilously low quality.”  The low-income men and women who have nonmarital births tend to be in relationships that are beset by infidelity and domestic violence, and take place in the context of crime, drugs, and failed educations.  Right after a couple has had a child they tend to say they want to make their relationship work, but  in most cases these are relationships that should be dissolved.
  3. Fear of divorce.  This, I think, is one of Edin’s most interesting findings and deserves more airtime than it gets.  Over and over again she hears low-income couples say they refrain from marrying because they believe that marriage is “holy” and they don’t want to end up divorced.  She writes that among the women she interviewed, “the stigma of a failed marriage was far worse than that of an out-of-wedlock birth…In one memorable interview, a mother quipped, ‘I don’t believe in divorce.  That’s why none of the women in my family are married.’”

So those are some of the reasons why low-income couples who have a nonmarital birth don’t end up staying together.  Now what about why low-income fathers don’t end up staying as involved in their kids’ lives as they say they want to?

Well, one of the biggest reasons is what sociologists call the “package deal” theory- that fathers’ relationships with their kids are mediated by their relationships with their kids’ mothers.  No relationship with the mother, no relationship with the kids.

Edin accepts the “package deal” hypothesis, but not completely.  She argues that even after relationships end, fathers continue to be involved with their kids at surprisingly high rates.  This is particularly true among African-Americans, and Edin hypothesizes that, given the very high rates of out-of-wedlock births in their community, African-Americans have been forced to develop cultural norms which facilitate continued paternal involvement even after the dissolution of fathers’ relationships with their babies’ mothers.

Edin says there are several factors which precipitate decreased paternal involvement after a child’s parents break-up.  The main ones are the establishment of new relationships- when either the father or the mother begins a new family with a new partner.  Surprisingly,  she finds this effect is stronger when mothers start new relationships than when fathers start new relationships.  She writes, “This gendered pattern suggests a willingness on the part of the father to remain involved regardless of his other familial commitments, but less willingness on the part of the mother to facilitate that involvement once she establishes a new family.”

One of the readers who responded to my original post took particular issue with this  argument.  She felt that the ethnographic portrait which I shared essentially suggested that the mother (Gloria) was the reason that the father (Apple) ended up abandoning his kids.

It’s important to note, though, that Edin’s framework of analysis eschews this kind of finger pointing.  She would argue that it makes sense for women like Gloria to push men like Apple out of the picture once they find new partners.  In most cases their new partners are more stable than their old partners, and having the old partners around (even if it’s just to see their kids) threatens to destabilize these new relationships through the creation of jealousy, etc.  In her view, all the actors are trying to make rational choices (good choices) within a context that both limits their range of choices and forces them to make those choices in response to suboptimal incentives (as in, women have an incentive to keep their kids’ fathers away in order to preserve their new relationships).

The second thought I snuck out of naptime with has to do with the relationship between understanding behavior and holding people accountable for their actions.  To talk in overly general terms, conservatives tend to have no patience for work like Edin’s that “contextualizes” behavior.  They see contextualization as just the first step towards excuse-making.  In their view, the only way to get good outcomes is to have high standards and to hold people accountable for their own bad choices.  Liberals, on the other hand, think that context matters and that even good people make bad choices when the wrong supports/incentives/social forces are in place.

And in this, I think both sides have a claim.  I agree with the conservatives that you can’t get anywhere without accountability.  On an individual level you have to assume that people are capable of making good choices and you have to hold them accountable when they don’t.

But at the same time, if you want to fix something you need to know why it’s broken.  The point of my original post was that when it comes to the breakdown of low-income families, simplistic explanations like “the men don’t care about their kids” fly in the face of both intuition (as I said initially, it’s a good bet to assume that all parents love their kids) and the evidence once you actually start talking to parents as Edin has done.

Related content from Growing Sideways

Reasons to pause when judging other parents


3 thoughts on “More on why low-income fathers leave but don’t “flee”

  1. I’m interested in reading more about why middle to upper class fathers leave their children, too, as I think it would shed light on or at least contrast with the “explanations” of the fathers in the lower class.

    I wish I could start out at a point of believing ALL parents love their children…unfortunately, I think that is a wildly optimistic viewpoint…

    The other point I’d like to make is that you insisted previously that not caring is very different than not being involved, but ftom the child’s perspective, it’s exactly the same thing.

  2. I come from rural appalachia, a place that is decidedly low income, and our community is not filled with absentee fathers, rampant infidelity, drug addicts, crime and domestic violence. Being low income doesn’t create low standards. Has this researcher found correlations with rural-urban environments and with black-white racial dichotomies?

    • As far as I know she hasn’t done any work comparing rural and urban poverty. Regarding race, her book Promises I Can Keep includes interviews with white and black single mothers and she finds that for the most part, they tell the same stories.

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