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COVID-19 and Low-Income Noncustodial Fathers

Low-income and noncustodial fathers have faced exceptional challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this study, we explored pandemic-related difficulties among vulnerable fathers in Milwaukee, including new or heightened financial and parenting challenges and challenges accessing needed services.

Data were gathered between July 2021–January 2022 through an online survey (N=79) and in-person and virtual focus groups (N=38). Participants were recruited through the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative, an entity that primarily serves low-income African American fathers with less than full custody of their children.

Survey results revealed a mix of stability and change in employment, income, child support orders, past-due child support,  and access to child support agencies and family courts during the pandemic. One out of five fathers reported being laid off  or having hours reduced due to the pandemic. A majority of fathers reported no change in ability to pay child support, but a substantial proportion did report heightened financial stressors of various kinds. Fathers with lower education were more likely to report in decrease in income and difficulty paying child support. Participant ratings of father-child and co-parent relationship quality before and since the pandemic were relatively stable, but fathers noted significant increases in time spent with children and on childcare and reported considerable disagreement with their child(ren)’s mother(s) over best practices related to COVID-19 and health.

Focus group findings contextualize the survey results. Fathers described devastating personal and community losses resulting from the pandemic, including the deaths of family and community members from COVID, hardships faced by themselves and their loved ones, and the toll of the pandemic on their mental health. While survey results demonstrate a mix of stability and change in employment and income, these results likely do not fully capture the financial impact of the pandemic for low-income and noncustodial fathers as focus group participants described new financial pressures to support family members  in the wake of COVID impacts. The survey revealed an overall trend toward increased time spent with children. Among focus group participants, some fathers gained time with children, other reported that they were able to see their children less due to the pandemic, and in some cases fathers who shared children with more than one custodial parent described different changes in time spent with their children based on how well they get along with the child’s mother. The majority of participants did not need to have contact with child support agencies or family courts during the pandemic, but among those who did, fathers described reduced access.

Findings suggest that low-income and noncustodial fathers have experienced a wide variety of pandemic impacts, including both desired changes that they wish to maintain and setbacks that they wish to remediate. By being aware of and responsive to this variation, family courts and child support agencies can better meet the needs of fathers and families. For example, policymakers could consider temporary order changes for temporary changes in circumstances, as when noncustodial parents substantially reduced work hours to be available to children during periods of school and daycare closure. Temporary order changes could help fathers maintain a desired change incurred by the pandemic, increased time with children and involvement in children’s care and schooling.


Child Support, Child Support Policy Research, Family & Partnering, Parenting


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