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Angela Guarin: Do Low-Income Noncustodial Fathers “Trade” Earlier Families for New Ones?

Angela Guarin
Angela Guarin

For this episode, we hear from Angela Guarin about a paper she wrote with Lonnie Berger, Maria Cancian, and Dan Meyer that tries to understand how low-income noncustodial fathers who have children in more than one household make decisions when it comes to supporting their children. Guarin is a postdoctoral fellow at Los Andes University in Colombia and was a graduate research fellow at the Institute for Research on Poverty while earning her Ph.D. in social welfare at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Transcript

Chancellor: Hello and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy Podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor. For this episode, we’re going to be hearing from Angela Guarin about a paper she wrote with Lonnie Berger, Maria Cancian, and Dan Meyer that tries to understand how low-income noncustodial fathers who have children in more than one household make decisions when it comes to supporting their children. Guarin is a postdoctoral fellow at Los Andes University in Colombia and she was a graduate research fellow at the Institute for Research on Poverty while earning her PhD in social welfare here at UW-Madison. It’s fairly well known that there have been big changes to the way that U.S. families form over the last fifty years or so, and one of these changes is that there is a growing number of people who have children with more than one partner during their childbearing years. So, when we started talking, I asked Dr. Guarin to tell us more about this issue and why it matters when it comes to fathers being able to support their children.

Guarin: In my research in general, I’m interested in the study of more complex and also more diverse families and trying to look at how those families interact with a series of policies and also trying to look at some of the implications of these family changes on child wellbeing. In this context and maybe more related to this paper with my coauthors, we were really interested in looking at the number of people who have had children with more than one partner and in our area of research, we call this multiple partner fertility or MPF and we think that multiple partner fertility, in addition to many of the other of the changes that families have experienced in the U.S., is particularly worrisome and it kind of raises very specific challenges to policies, mainly policies that are trying to serve families and families in need in the U.S. For example, when we think about multiple partner fertility, one of the key challenges is to try to determine the both the rights and but also the responsibilities of parents when they don’t live with their children. And how these responsibilities change when these fathers or these parents have these children spread across multiple households. So then how are we going to try to determine those rights and responsibilities, particularly the financial responsibilities? And the truth is that we know very little about the extent to which noncustodial parents with multiple families provide support to all of the children they have. Or it may be because they have some limited financial security themselves, they need to choose between providing small amounts to all of their children or just maybe prioritizing some of the children they have. So that’s how we get a little bit to the question about whether non-custodial low-income fathers are trading families, like trying to see how they distribute their financial contributions to the children they have.

Chancellor: Guarin says that one of the motivations for this research draws from a renewed interest in the ways that nonresident fathers are important in the lives of their children. One of the areas they focus on in this paper is on the financial contributions that nonresident fathers make, both informally and through the formal child support system.

Guarin: And for example, to give you an idea, in the context of the formal child support system, we know that fewer than half, or about half of mothers who have custody of their children and who were supposed to receive child support received the full amount they were supposed to. So just half of the mothers who actually have an order are receiving the amount they are supposed to. These low levels of compliance have also raised awareness about the deteriorating economic circumstances, particularly of low-income men. So, the remaining question here is, what do noncustodial or nonresidential fathers do when they have to distribute their financial resources across multiple households? And, since, within the formal child support system they have less discretion to help to direct the payments they make, maybe they make different decisions about how to distribute informal contributions like cash and in kind support. So if noncustodial fathers don’t have the resources to provide full support to all of their children, as I said, they may feel like they may have to choose between providing a small amount to all them or that they have to prioritize some of the children they have in different households. And this is where our research fits. We aim to actually try to shed light a little bit on the financial contributions, like the total package of support that noncustodial fathers make to children across multiple families. And here we are trying to pay particular attention to fathers with very limited economic resources, so that’s the focus of our research here.

Chancellor: I asked Guarin if there’s been much previous research here that might give us an idea about what might be happening in these situations.

Guarin: So, in the context of the provision of support to multiple families, research has indicated that some fathers may trade or they may swap families, and what this suggests is that they may focus on children from their most recent partner, potentially decreasing their involvement, but also maybe their financial contributions to children that they had with prior partners. I think the general idea here is that once a relationship ends, parents move on to new relationships. And the hypothesis is that once fathers and mothers have a new partner or that they have new children, the willingness and the connection to previous children might decline. And there is another idea that men see fatherhood as a package deal and that the relationship they have with their children depends on the relationship they have with the mother, so once the relationship ends, they might also cut the connection they had with their child. The thing is, most of this research, looking at trading and swapping families focuses mainly on resident kids. So what happens if a father has a new kid at home? But we really don’t know a lot about what happens with fathers who have nonresident kids distributed across several households. So that’s why here we are trying to focus on nonresident fathers. We look at fathers here specifically because that’s the most common arrangement. In about 80 percent of the cases, fathers are the noncustodial parent. It’s the mothers who have custody. In future work, we would like to also look at what happens with mothers, but here we are focusing on the financial contributions that these fathers make to their nonresident children across multiple households.

Chancellor: Given all that, I asked Guarin what they actually did in their study to try to understand more about the package of support that fathers provide to their children in multiple households.

Guarin: We are using new data that was collected in the baseline interviews of the Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration or CSPED for short, which is a federally funded intervention for noncustodial parents who are both behind in their child support payments and who were having employment difficulties. And then for our analysis sample, we have the father and we have information for his youngest nonresident child and his oldest nonresident child. And we are just going to compare the financial contributions first through the formal child support system and then informal contributions both in cash, which is monetary transfers that are made directly to the custodial mother. And then in kind support which is just an estimated dollar amount that the father spends on buying things for the kid like diapers or books, so then we have that estimated dollar amount. So then we compare the contributions the fathers are making to the youngest compared to the oldest nonresident child and we see there is a difference in those types of contributions, but also in the total package of support that they provide.

Chancellor: A key point in looking at low-income noncustodial fathers who have had children with more than one partner is just getting an understanding of some of their circumstances and the barriers they face. So, in their study, one of the first things they wanted to learn was who these fathers were and what their situations looked like.

Guarin: When we looked at the characteristics of the sample overall, and again, we enrolled here fathers who were already behind in their child support payments, fathers who were already having employment difficulties, so of course this is a very disadvantaged sample, so we see these fathers having very low levels of education, high levels of unemployment, and also incarceration history. Overall we find that about 60 percent of parents in this sample had children with multiple partners. More specifically, we also see that fathers had on average four children with three different mothers. But as a reminder, that’s once we keep only father who actually have children with more than one partner.

Chancellor: So that’s the descriptive part of the paper — just understanding more about who these fathers are, but then they go on to focus on the support that these fathers are paying and what it can tell us.

Guarin: We find that fathers are having less discretion of directing formal child support payments, so we don’t see a lot of differences in the provision of formal support to the youngest compared to the oldest nonresident child. But we do see some discretion fathers in directing informal cash and in kind contributions. And more specifically, when we look at informal — again — cash and in-kind support, we do find some differences and these differences favor the youngest nonresident child compared to the oldest. We see the fathers are more likely to provide both cash and in kind support to the youngest child. But then when we look at the amounts, there is not really a significant difference.

Chancellor: And Guarin says that a key summary finding is that they don’t find support for the idea that fathers are “trading families.”

Guarin: We don’t see that they stop providing support to children they had from previous relationships. We see that fathers instead are kind of, what we say, are prioritizing children from more recent relationships but this change in priorities doesn’t really imply a lack of concern for the previous children they have. Again we do see fathers being more likely to provide informal support, both cash and in kind contributions to the youngest nonresident child compared to the oldest. But on average the amounts provided don’t differ between these two children. Again what we need to remember with this finding is that maybe the difference in the amounts is not large because we are also seeing the big economic constraints that these fathers are facing, so they might be providing to both, but maybe the amounts are not too large, or the difference in the amounts are not too large.

Chancellor: Guarin emphasized that one of the things that makes studying the support that fathers provide to children in multiple households challenging is just that they need very specific data to do that.

Guarin: So we need fathers to give us information about all of the children they have across the multiple households, so to study this topic, we need very detailed information. And second, it was a really big challenge to try to identify the youngest and the oldest child. You need a lot of data to be able to identify the age of the child, the type of contributions fathers are making. And I think something we are trying to assess right now is also their reliability or how credible are the measures we have, because we are asking fathers for these self-reported measures of formal and informal contributions, so we might be able later to look at administrative data, but I think the biggest challenge in studying complex families is the type of data you need to actually measure how many families fathers have, how many children they have, and what are the financial contributions they are making to these different families. So, I think there are just so many factors that come into play when you ask someone how many kids, how many families they have. So it’s a challenge that we continue working toward.

Chancellor: I asked Guarin about the takeaways from their study and what they can tell us when it comes to policy.

Guarin: Our results suggest that the child support system might be working as intended. We see that it is ensuring in fact that support is provided to all noncustodial children regardless of the order of birth. In contrast, when we look at informal cash and in-kind contributions, we do see that if payments didn’t come through the formal system, father’s preferences might benefit to some extent younger children compared to older children. So here we see that formal systems rules instead of father’s preferences are contributing to a more equal distribution of resources through formal child support payments that we are not seeing with informal contribution of support. So, if the child support system really continues with the intent of securing support for all nonresident children, we believe that our results caution against moving to a system that is kind of more dependent on parental preferences, such as the system that’s in place in the UK.

Chancellor: Quick note here: In the United Kingdom parents make their own arrangements about child support. So, parents can decide whether children from one family should be treated differently from children in another family. The child support agency only becomes involved if parents cannot come to agreement, and then they must pay to use the services of the agency

Guarin: As I said, we caution against moving to a system that depends more on fathers’ preferences because we see that if we rely on that, they might lean towards providing more support to younger children. And I think the last thing to note here too is that the level of informal support provided by noncustodial or nonresident fathers is actually quite substantial in our sample. So it will be relevant to also study more of the total package of support that is provided by fathers and maybe try to see how these contributions can be taken into account through the formal child support system.

Chancellor: Thanks to Angela Guarin for sharing this work with us. If you would like to learn more about the study, you can check out their article in IRP’s July 2019 FOCUS on designing more effective child support policies. This podcast was supported as part of a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation but its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that Office, any other agency of the Federal government, or the Institute for Research on Poverty. To catch new episodes of the Poverty Research and Policy Podcast, you can subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, or Google Play Podcasts. You can also find all of our past episodes on the Institute for Research on Poverty website. Our theme music for this episode is “Staring Straight” by Maarten De Boer. Thanks for listening.

Categories

Child Support, Child Support Policy Research, Children, Complicated Families & Multiple-Partner Fertility, CSPED, Custody & Placement, Economic Support, Enforcement, Family & Partnering, Family Income, Family Structure, Multiple-Partner Fertility, Orders & Payments, Parenting, Related Social Policies

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