Low-Income, Non-Residential Fathers:
Off-Balance in a Competitive Economy,
In Initial Analysis(1)

by Kathryn Edin, Laura Lein, Timothy Nelson

September 28, 1998

Table of Contents

In addition to affecting the lives of millions of women, welfare reform has ramifications for the men who fathered their children.  Increasingly, legislatures are looking to child support payments from non­residential fathers to keep low­income mother­headed households off welfare and out of poverty.  Welfare reform has been shaped by beliefs that mothers can remain dependent on welfare, supporting their families primarily on public moneys; they can or rise to self­sufficiency through entry into low­wage labor.  It has also been affected by beliefs that fathers are not paying their fare share — and they can and they should.

This paper explores the work and residential status of low­income, non­residential fathers, men often portrayed as irresponsible dead­beats who ignore their responsibilities to the children they fathered.  It represents the first level of analysis on a sample of 85 fathers.  Future work will include more detailed consideration of fathers' budgets, as well as their parenting behavior.  The researchers are also expanding the sample to include a greater number of young fathers, and future papers will include work with the expanded sample.

This project follows, and in some sense parallels our earlier work (Edin and Lein 1996, 1997) on the financial lives of low­income, single­mother households.  Through an intensive study of the lives of eighty-two fathers, we find that, in many ways, they are worse off than the women whose children they fathered.  They struggle with irregular, low­wage employment.  Many of them have faced periods of incarceration.  They are affected by disability, illness, and dependence on alcohol or other substances.  But economically and emotionally marginal as many of these fathers were, they still represent a large proportion of low­income fathers who continue to make contributions to their children's households and to maintain at least a relationship with those children.

Through earlier work with low­income mothers we learned that non­residential fathers make significant, although often covert, cash contributions to mothers' households.  However, the earlier study used only mothers' reports of fathers' involvement.  These reports suggested that mothers recognized the complex and difficult issues facing the fathers of their children:  How to make a living at the low end of the labor force; how to maintain a relationship with children for whom one could not assume either day­to­day or financial responsibility; how to maintain self­respect through periods of incarceration, incapacitation, and insufficient earnings.  However, even though mothers understood fathers' circumstances, even they felt that a continuing relationship between father and child must include some financial contribution to the child's support.

This new research has moved toward the creation of a series of profiles of the financial and family lives of these contributing fathers.  Intensive interviews elicited the financial realities of fathers' lives, their own assessment of their ability to contribute substantially to their children, and their feelings about themselves as fathers, husbands, and men.  This analysis is based on men' experiences in the Austin­San Antonio corridor in Texas and in the corridor between Camden, New Jersey and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Texas provided low benefits to mothers, low wages, and high unemployment, while New Jersey/Pennsylvania had higher benefits and higher wages, while still suffering high unemployment.  In addition, the Texas corridor had a considerably lower cost of living.  In each site we sought out men in a variety of ways, locating white, African­American, and (in San Antonio) Mexican­American men, for a total of 82 respondents.  In both sites, we found respondents

In this context the study explores their employment, housing, experience of hardship, and experience as fathers.  It highlights the issues particularly salient to men's earnings history through comparisons with low­income women.  It shows that fathers live under the constraints of unstable, low­wage labor; often without the anchor of residence with children, wife, in a stable home; and with little access to support from agencies and social networks.  Their lives remain economically marginal across years of effort.  Their ability to provide regular financial support to their children is limited by all of these constraints.  The mothers of their children have learned that father support is an important benefit, but not necessarily to be depended on.

Meanwhile, research examining women's participation in the labor force (England and Farkas, 1986) indicates that the pattern of women's labor force attachment in the United States has come to more closely resemble men's over the last several decades.  More women are working more hours more continuously.  They are taking less time off to bear and raise children.  New welfare reform legislation is reinforcing this pattern for low­income mothers, expecting mothers to enter the labor force as full­time employees when their children are relatively young.

At the same time, the workplace status of low­income men has been deteriorating.  National data (Rose, 1992) indicates a decline in the purchasing power of the wages of the lowest segment of the labor force.  This report documents many of the barriers between low­wage, non­residential fathers and regular work, and some of the most significant antecedents and results of their unstable work patterns.  They ways in which the various factors affect men and their earnings are complex and affect men throughout their lives.  This paper is a first step in identifying the issues that limit men's abilities to contribute to their children's support.  It suggests the devastating impact of irregular and low­paid employment, frequent exposure to material hardship, unstable residential patterns, and limited agency and organizational resources on their ability to support,and through that support, maintain relationships with their children.

Introduction to the Research Questions

The problems faced by low­income fathers are in part a result of the needs experienced by the mothers of their children; in part a result of their own deteriorating wages.  Our earlier work with low­income mothers indicates that the self­sufficiency problems facing women on welfare and in low­wage work are primarily labor force problems:  in a nutshell, they cannot support themselves and their households on the wages they are likely to receive in the low­wage market for which they are eligible.  Neither does welfare lift them into economic self­sufficiency.  Whether on welfare or in the labor force, in fact, low­income women are rarely self­sufficient.  On average, women who work at low­wage jobs can earn only 2/3 of what they need to support their households; women on welfare receive from AFDC and Food Stamps about 58 percent of their budgetary needs.

At any point in time, the majority of poor children reside in single­parent families, and most of these households have a welfare history.  On welfare or in wage labor, single mothers rely on both cash and other contributions from men, often the fathers of their children.  Detailed interviews with women — designed to elicit both their household budgets and the ways in which they make decisions about work, welfare and budgeting — suggest that many low­income men provide cash contributions to the mothers of their children, as well as to other one female­headed households.  Men may have children in more than one household.  They may also contribute to the households of mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and others.  However, low­income fathers, like the mothers of their children, are limited by the labor force in what they can earn and contribute to mothers' households. 

Since 1992, more than a million unskilled and semi­skilled single mothers have exited welfare and entered the formal labor market.  As states seek to comply with quotas and impose time limits, even more single mothers with low skills will move from welfare to work.  In Making Ends Meet (1997), we argue that when these mothers seek work in the low wage sector, they will have less money and will be more reliant on their personal networks for the financial help they need to pay their bills.  (The additional costs of transportation, child care, medical care, clothing, and housing cost them an additional $300/month as they exit welfare.)  Chief among mothers' economic supporters are men:  the absent fathers, brothers, and boyfriends.

The employment prospects of such men have declined dramatically since the 1970s.  The percentage of year­round, full­time workers with low annual earnings (those who earn less than the poverty line for a family of four) increased from seven percent in 1974 to 14 percent in 1990.  For whites, the rate increased from seven to 13 percent.  For blacks, the rate increased from 14 to 22 percent, and for those of Hispanic origin, from 12 to 28 percent (U.S. House of Representatives, 1993).

Both the Family Support Act of 1988 and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 contained provisions designed to lessen mothers' dependence on welfare in part by toughening up child support enforcement and improving collection rates from absent fathers.  If the fathers of poor welfare­dependent children paid their "fair share," many argued that their children would no longer need government assistance.  This approach assumes that the problem is the fathers' willingness, rather than their ability, to pay.

Just as there are a series of stereotypes about teenage mothers and mother son welfare, there have also developed a series of stereotypes about the men who fathered their children.  Dash's work (1989) develops a picture of careless and irresponsible young fatherhood.  Other work referred to in Lerman and Ooms, presents another side of the story:  portraits of highly involved fathers who contribute to and spend time with their children (Elster and Lamb, 1986).  Work by Mercer Sullivan (1989) and Elijah Anderson (1993) draw on ethnographic techniques to explore how complicated the lives and life decisions of unwed fathers are compared to the stereotypes.  Sullivan, in exploring the various levels of involvement of young unwed fathers, discusses the intersection of the father's age, the norms of the community, the availability of paid labor, and the father's access to training, education and job placement, as among the factors contributing to patterns of father involvement with children.  Anderson examines in more detail the ways of thinking engaged in by young teenage boys and girls at the time of first pregnancy.  However, both works emphasize the fathering experience of young teens.

Indeed the majority of material on non­residential fathers concentrates on very young fathers (Cervera, 1991; Christmon, 1990; Conner, 1986).  Many of these very young fathers become increasingly uninvolved with their children and the children's mothers over time.  Cervera, in a small scale study of fifteen white teenage mothers found that fathers became more distanced overtime.  Both Comer (1989) and Conner (1986), working with young African­American fathers, explored the degree to which African­American men have been both affected by their historical experiences in the United States and stereotyped as poor fathers in the process.

Data from low­income, single mothers suggests that men, often beyond their teenage years, make substantial, although irregular, cash contributions to the households containing their children.  Because of the structure of our welfare system, many mothers on welfare collude with contributing fathers to hide the extent of cash contributions to the family.  Even wage­reliant mothers may hide cash contributions to conserve their food stamps and other benefits.  Braver, Fitzpatrick and Bay (1991) report that in their sample of 179 families, only 43 percent of the fathers' payments were made through a clerk of the court.  Thus, fathers' contributions to households are often difficult to identify and calculate.

Studies like Leibow's many years ago (1967) and Anderson's more recent work (1993) provide considerable insight into how men are thinking at various points in their experience of fatherhood.  However, they provide little detailed information on the actual nature of the fathers' financial contributions, or the resources available to the father in meeting his responsibilities.  Work, like Braver's (1991),while providing insight into fathers' earnings and payments to families, draws from formal court records.  This research effectively passes over the low­income men who may never have married the mothers of their children or make all or most of their payments outside the court system.  Survey work often under represents this segment of the male population who are hard to locate and often do not respond to surveys.  The research reported here used ethnographic field techniques to reach out to men who are often difficult to identify and locate and then elicited from them the full work, financial, and residential accounts necessary to understand and interpret their family support strategies.

While critics of our welfare system want to see women emerge into economic "self­sufficiency," the goals for men in our society are even more economically demanding.  Not only should they be economically self­sufficient, but they should be able to support the women and children in their households.  One predominant view — that fathers of poor children are able but simply unwilling to pay — cannot currently be supported by evidence, since we know relatively little about fathers' true income and job stability, under what circumstances they feel obligated to pay, and what they consider their multiple responsibilities.  Furstenberg (1992) suggests that poor fathers' failure to pay may be a result of "obligation overload."  In other words, fathers' financial obligations to their families and others outstrip their earning capacity in the labor market.

Fathers face problems even more complex than limitations of the labor market.  Low income mothers tell us that their responsibilities for their children are the central focus around which other decisions and efforts resolved.  Because they might well lose their children if they can not provide for them, mothers turn their efforts toward maintaining a stable residence, collecting at least the minimal resources necessary to household support, and keeping out of the criminal justice system.

Men, as we will see in this report, are grieved by the loss of both contact with their children and the self­respect generated by the ability to support them.  They are less likely than the mothers we interviewed to have stable incomes from any source or stable residences, and are more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system.  When they face destitution, there are relatively few, if any, public or private sources of substantial financial aid.  This report answers the following research questions through detailed descriptions of the most common profiles discovered among the low­income non­residential fathers we interviewed:

The paper concludes with a comparison between low­income fathers and low­income mothers on each of these questions.  It shows that men's relationship to work is irregular and complex, their earnings unreliable, and their ability to support themselves — let alone anyone else — questionable.  They live in conditions of considerable hardship, with few sources of support.  Because of the instability of their lives, their limited income, and the vagaries of their lives, men's relationships with their children are often irregular and fragmented.

Answers to the Questions

All of these issues — income, housing, hardship, inaccessibility of services, and distancing from children — are interactive.  They affect each other and intensify the impact of each on men's lives.  However, to begin an analysis of men's lives, we look at their status in each of these areas.

What are the most common profiles of current employment?

Men in this study fell into one of the following four categories:

  1. Casual Labor:  Some men go to recruitment centers each day, where contractors and others in need of day labor collect workers.  The chances of employment depend on the relative need for such labor versus the available labor supply.
  2. Informal Self-Employment:  Some men engage in home­based, self­employment through such occupations as lawn care, house­painting, heavy cleaning and hauling.  Employment again depends on the relative need versus supply.  Such self­employment often entails a capital investment in tools or equipment.
  3. Regular Low-Wage Labor:  Some men engage in regular occupations, but at low wages, often without benefits or any long­range security.  They may do kitchen work in hotels or restaurants or cleaning and maintenance work.
  4. Seasonal or Migratory Labor:  Some men engage in agricultural or construction work that pays only part­year and often requires travel away from home.

At the time of the interviews, the men in the study sample divided among these work profiles with the majority in casual labor:

Sample Breakdown by Current Employment Type
Employment Type Number in Sample
Texas New Jersey/Penn.
Casual Labor 32 9
Seasonal Labor 9 1
Regular Low­Wage Labor 11 17
Informal Self­Employment 1 2

In Texas, these figures are almost in inverse proportion to the desirability of employment pattern among the men we interviewed, who most desired workable self­employment, and, after that, regular low­wage labor — particularly inside work.  A larger proportion of the men in New Jersey and Pennsylvania  — where we recruited a somewhat better off population were in more regularized low­wage labor.(2)  In addition to the obvious disadvantages of low and irregular hours and pay, casual labor presented significant risks to men.  As our respondents pointed out to us, workers were easily victimized by employers who were previously unknown to the workers, who picked them up from day­labor spots, and transported them to unfamiliar parts of town.  In the worse case workers could be abandoned with neither money nor transportation.  More frequently they were dropped off with only part of the expected pay.  They often worked long hours in poor conditions.  Men reported strategies for dealing with the difficulties of day labor:

"You know, I don't take no checks.  I want my cash money.  I'm not getting out of the truck.  You take me home with you, you ain't gonna pay me.  ... I never let nobody owe me.  You know, like a guy say, 'Well, we gonna work these three days, and I'll pay you on Friday.'  ... You know it's no guarantee he's coming back."

Eventually, the men age out of some of the jobs.  As they pointed out(3), at their older ages — our sample went up to 54 years old — they had difficulty handling some of the heavy physical work required for casual and seasonal labor jobs.

"Out on the street, there'll be trucks that come around wanting some help, digging a ditch or cement or something that you're going to take because nobody else wants and for cheap labor.  There'll be guys out here that are willing to work hard labor for four bucks an hour.  I mean hard­ass work, but if that's what you got ..."

Age, according to one man, affects his ability not only to work a job, but to get a job — he has trouble entering the race to be first when a contractor pulls up to the day labor lot looking for workers:

"They [younger men] see a truck parked right there and whoooo! Right there, just like ants.  By the time I see everybody over there, I just stand there and say 'whew,' unless he knows me."

With age comes the necessity of dealing with an increased variety of physical difficulties.  Chronic conditions, such as diabetes, become more evident.  In the cases of ongoing medical conditions, work is often necessary to health — only through work can a man earn the money for medications, diet, and protection from the elements.

"About a few weeks ago I found a job that lasted about five to six weeks.  That was pretty good because I caught up on a lot of things.  I sent a little money home.  Especially the medicine, because I have to pay for those.  So I have to work my way to health.  Keeping healthy, that's another challenge.  You've got days where, that's what they serve, that's what you get [free meals at shelter.]  I'm diabetic, so sometimes I can't eat that.  They don't have any special meals."

For the men on their own, there often seem only the most minimal of resources for dealing with health problems.  Men on their own are usually ineligible for publicly provided health insurance, and seldom have access to jobs that provide any health benefits.  One exchange in the course of an interview typified the attitudes of many of our respondents:

Q:  If you get sick, where do you go?

A:  I don't get sick.

Over time, a larger proportion of men have experienced injury, as well as illness, on the job.  As workers only rarely covered by disability, unemployment, or health insurance, these men often change categories of work when sickness or accident occurs.  One worker points out the lack of resources he had after an accident.

"I had an accident with this guy's hammer.  He had a loose head on the hammer.  I was up replacing some facial boards, and the head came loose and it came up the wall and it broke my tooth.  Then the guy stayed owing me a day's work, and it really messed me up.  I'm powerless over that.  These people do not have no workman's comp; they don't have no insurance.  You don't have dental, nothing."

Furthermore, the impact of illness or accident is often compounded by the multiplicity of emergencies and changes facing men at the same time:

"In the last six months I've been recovering from an injury where I fall about fifteen feet onto concrete, on my back.  I've had to file my third bankruptcy in order to hold onto my house.  I'm trying to recover from that.  I blew the engine in my car.  My house was foreclosed on.  I got evicted, did buy a new car, and I moved into a new place, so it's been pretty much of a struggle.  I work at an hourly rate job at Home Depot, trying to survive, and I continue to go through ongoing litigation problems trying to get visitation from the kids.  So it's been a real struggle, but it's at the end now, of a long process, seven years."

For workers, the experience of illness and accident is one of multiple pressures affecting their employment and their overall financial difficulties.

Like all workers, the men we interviewed all suffered periods of illness or periods when accidents prevented their working.  Unlike many other workers, these periods usually marked a transition downwards in their job status.  Few, if any, employers expected to hold a job for an ill or temporarily disabled worker.  Furthermore, men on their own had minimal access to disability insurance, workman's compensation, or publicly supported health care.

However, men move among these categories of work for many reasons — not just because they aged out of one or become ill.  A man in informal self­employment or in regular low­wage labor may fall into casual labor or season/migratory labor when he loses either his tools or his transportation.  Even at low wages, self­maintenance in regular employment often requires assets:  clothing or uniform, tools, money for transportation or a car.  Men in casual or seasonal work talk about their transitions from more regular work:

"Well, basically the guy did not want me when my car broke down.  I had all my tools in his car, and I had some company tools too.  I got dropped off and thought he was coming right back, but I did not see him for three days.  He took my tools and sold them and the company tools and sold them, so I told my boss what happened, and he said you lost the tools, you lost the job.  I've been down here ever since.  It's hard to have a full time job with no transportation, and I don't have no transportation."

In an effort to get and hold more regular jobs men develop strategies to get access to tools and transportation.  But their tenure on the job is as fragile as the strategies they have been able to develop.  When they lose access to either, they are usually out of a job.

"I was working at Samsung.  And the guy I was riding with he got some chemicals in his eye.  That was my transportation to the job, and I could no longer get to the job without him.  Cause nobody else in the neighborhood was close by, and the buses don't run out there."

Men recognize that the economy around them is shifting.  Youth and strength are not enough.  Men prepared to work hard at physical labor find that their strength, their willingness, and their motivation are not enough for many jobs they once could take on.  Their limited education and poor academic skills are beginning to tell, even at the low end of the labor market.

"Since I come from a migrant family, I didn't get much school.  There isn't very much hope without school, because everything is modern, computers you know.  Even simple little things, balancing a tire, they got a computer.  It used to just be a bubble level, but now everything is so complicated a person is ashamed to even look for work because you won't know the first thing about it."

The older the men, the more likely they are to have dropped out of school early.  For these men, the school experience [sic]

Conviction for a crime also affects men's relationships with the labor force.  Even though we did not ask directly about arrest records, 13 of the men volunteered information about recent convictions and/or current probation.  At least as many others talked about being approached by the police, dealing with the police, and recent arrests.  For many of these men, difficulties with the police and the possibility of arrest are an intrinsic part of the life they lead.  As one man commented, "What black man hasn't been to jail?"

The arrest or arrest process can simultaneously lose a man transportation, tools, clothes or whatever else is needed to hold a job:

"After spending some time in L.A. working, I came back to Austin.  I was sitting at a bus stop with my tools drinking a 40 ounce and a little tipsy.  The police drove by and noticed me and jumped out of the car.  As they restrained me, I was reaching back toward the bus stop bench for my tools which they thought was resisting arrest.  They got rougher.  They took me down and left all the tools sitting there on the street corner.  That's what put me on the streets."

Men occasionally find themselves in jail when they cannot make child support or other court­ordered payments.  Men experience these arrests as major set­backs in their attempts to make it on the job.

"One time I went to jail for seven months.  It was for probation violation, I got behind on my payments.  This judge was a real dick.  He gave me a hundred and eighty days, flat.  Plus twenty­eight days."

Once in the criminal justice system, men often experience a sequence of additional demands on their time and energy.  To many men probation, while a comprehensible consequence of arrest, also makes it more difficult to find and keep a job.

[Your worst week?] "Lots of things happened on the job.  Just a lot of different stresses and job­related problems, because I am on probation.  A lot of stress comes from that, having to deal with that whole thing, doing all of the different things that you gotta do, doing community service, going to classes, payments to them [$80/month]."

Most men's recent brushes with the criminal justice system emerge from vagrancy, failure to meet the terms of probation (often lasting as long as ten years), and trespassing.

"When you get to be diabetic and stuff like that, I got a good deal.  They gave me a ticket, a referral, a medical pass that entitles you to three meals and a bottom bunk.  You'll see at four, on the other side of the fence, a big long line.  The disableds are in here, they go in first, then the singles, then whoever is out there goes last.  That's a challenge out there.  If you didn't get a ticket Out there on the street the police are going to give you another hassle, 'what are you doing on the streets?', 'Well, I've got nothing else to do.  'There's more than a hundred people there."

While many of the men struggling in the low wage market recalled their younger days when criminal activity seemed like a plausible option as an occupation, most now found it an unreasonable alternative, except under the most dire circumstances.

"I sold some weed before.  ... it's really nothing to talk about.  Sold it for quick money and made about $20.  You can't make money selling wee, not unless you're really into it.  Wouldn't go to jail for $45 or $50 worth of marijuana.  It's not worth it."

Unlike the young men in Bourgeouis' (1995) and Sullivan's (1989) work, these older men, although they referred to illegal activities in their youth tended to look on illegal activities as last resorts in earning a living.  Indeed, as their life histories show, many of them would go hungry and homeless before committing themselves to illegal activities.  While they move precariously among jobs and among the types of employment strategies we talk about here, they sink into drug­dealing, theft, or dealing in stolen goods only on rare occasions.

And any of the work patterns listed above might well prove unstable.  In fact, many of the men had engaged in work along each of these patterns over the past several years.  Illness, arrest, age, infirmity, loss of resources and assets could all together lead to a descent through the hierarchy of employment to the casual wage work that most of our sample engaged in.  Even while traversing this difficult and complex work environment, men spoke frequently of the kinds of jobs they would most like to have.  One man wishes he could spend his whole life painting houses.  Another thinks back to the days he worked as a car mechanic.  Some made repeated efforts to earn money through entrepreneurship and self­initiative that ranged from selling snow cones on the side to selling plasma on a regular basis.

What are the most common profiles of current residence?

The instability in occupation was matched by an instability in residence.  In fact, men were eligible to be in our sample as non­residential fathers usually only after they had left at least one residence that included their children and their children's mother.  Men's housing arrangements fell into several categories:

At the time of the interviews the men in the sample divided out among these housing possibilities, with the majority living in shared housing or shelters.

Sample Breakdown by Current Housing
Current Housing Number in Sample
Texas New Jersey/Penn.(4)
Own house/apartment 4 8
House/apt. with female partner 4 5
House/apt. with relative 6 12
House/apt. with roommate 17 1
Motel/hotel/rooming house 7 3
Shelter/homeless 15 0

While men engaged easily in conversations about which jobs were preferable, it was often more difficult to engage them in a discussion of housing desirability.  In fact, the issue was not so much what kind of housing, but the stability of the housing, and, regardless of what kind of housing men occupied at the time of the interview, only a handful occupied housing that had been stable for more than six months.  What they aspired to was stability and a certain measure of quiet and orderliness rather than a certain type of housing:

[Talking about a shelter:]  "It's quiet, no violence or anything, because they've got security and everything.  Just like right now, nobody bothers you; everybody just takes care of their own business.  Everything is all right."

Men depending on shelters or on motels and rooming houses had housing that was at risk each night, dependent on whether they could get into the shelter, and whether they had earned enough to pay for a night's — or a week's — housing at a motel or rooming house.  Many men looked at their earnings first as an avenue to shelter:

Q:  It sounds like you spend a lot of time looking for work.

A:  Yeah, looking for work and especially, a lot of people I mean, I work hard, sometimes a lot of people they don't want to pay up minimum wage or whatever but somebody's got to do it, so I don't mind working hard, as long as people treat me right. .. Last week was pretty good, about thirty, thirty­two hours.  Yea, it was three days and a half.  ... I paint and I unload furniture, one day.  It was pretty good because I've got me a place where I pay thirty five dollars a week.  I rent, that's the first thing I've got to do, you know.  I don't want to be out on the street; I've been on the street a long time.

For men in unstable low­wage work, the need for shelter is inversely related to the ability to get work.  One of the many hardships faced by the men we interviewed is the difficulty of finding work when the weather is bad, or during holiday seasons:

"There's days, there's weeks that go by that you might work one day out of the week and that's a seven­day week.  When it's raining, the weather's cold, holidays are bad, real bad, because nobody works on holidays."

Men who have struggled for years feel that they have used up their welcome and the resources provided by relatives after a certain amount of time.  After all, they reason, you can only ask for so much.  One man explains that since his mother is already caring for his child, it is hardly reasonable to move back in with her himself.

"I could go back home and stay with my mother but I wouldn't want to.  I don't want to do that.  Well see, she's taking care of my kid now.  And I think that'd be too much of a burden, you know to ask her to take care of me and my wife.  You know when I'm grown I should be able to take, do that myself.  And basically I don't call and ask her for anything, you know.  Cause she's doing that ... I appreciate her doing that ... So I figure I can get out here and try to make it on my own."

Another man, living with his oldest daughter, now the mother of several children, noted that his presence put her at risk, even though living with her was one of the best periods of his adult life.

"[Best week?] When I was staying with my older daughter across town.  Then she said that I couldn't stay with her no more.  She has a lot of kids [on welfare].  That's why I came over here.  I didn't want to get her in trouble.  She's got her own life to take care of, so I just came back over here [living behind the car wash where he works]."

Even when men are working most days, they live on the edge.  One married man commented on the close relationship between his employment and his housing:

"I worked for a woman yesterday, and that's how I paid my rent yesterday:  I worked for her yesterday.  She's a landscaper, and she's got a job in Westlake.  That's going to be for a week, so I don't have to worry about that week.  And then my wife, she's got a job that she's working for [another] woman.  She go to work on Monday.  So, basically what I can do, on Monday, when I got to work Monday, and she go to work Monday, I can pay for two days.  And that way, every day I go to work, I can pay one day ahead and don't have to worry about Saturday and Sunday."

What are the most recent experiences of material hardship?

In parallel with our recent work on low­income mothers, we also asked non­residential fathers about their experiences with material hardship.  These included questions about:

Given the instability in their lives, and, in particular, the irregularity of their housing arrangements, most men had experienced many of the difficulties listed above.  However, for men who had spent much of the previous year homeless or near­homeless, many of the questions were difficult for them to grasp and respond to.  Men alternating between shelters and the streets could not reasonably answer questions about stoves and heating systems.  Men who responded to the lack of medical care available to them by declaring that they never got sick didn't talk about untreated medical conditions.  Therefore, in order to give an accurate portrait of men's lives, but also stay within the confines of what men would discuss, this section concentrates on men's experiences with homelessness, hunger, and lack of clothing.  Many of the men had experienced homelessness or hunger during the preceding year, as listed in the table below.

Sample Experience of Homelessness and Hunger
During the Preceding Year
Problem Number out of 53 in sample
Texas New Jersey/Penn.
Homelessness 27 (51%) 5 (17%)
Hunger/No food 24 (45%) 7 (24%)

Most of the men we talked to had a variety of strategies for getting food, and sources of food, including soup kitchens, friendly restaurant managers, and individuals they knew who would feed them.  Men, much more than low­income mothers relied on soup kitchens as a food source of last resort:

[Worst week?] I've had some bad weeks, here, man, when it rain.  .. Yeah the rain, there's nobody working, and if it wouldn't have been for the soup kitchen I don't know what I would a done.  Starved to death or what.

They also would trade work for food:

"I buy it [food] at a restaurant or I can knock on the back of the door, and they let me clean off their mats and stuff at night when they clean up and that gets me something to eat."

Men know that food is a necessity if they are to do the next day's work.  For outdoors work in the hot San Antonio sun, men must keep themselves both fed and hydrated:

"Sometimes you spend money before you even go to work.  You can spend almost ten dollars just trying to keep cool, sodas, and trying to get yourself something to eat, so, whatever, whatever you drink .  Some people drink beer, so, you know, to each his own, but any way you go, you need a drink."

But, even hungry, they recognize that they are making sacrifices of pride and self­respect when, even as workers, they must beg for food:

[Hungry?] "Lotta times."  [What do you do?] "Swallow your pride and go ask somebody can you rake their yard or go ask your uncle for ten dollars.  That's pretty much it.  Or go pick up soda cans...  When I don't have any food I just go to a soup kitchen.  But I just can't stand for my kids to go there.  So if they don't have any food, it's up to more desperate measures.  ... I did go to crime to get food.  There was no work...  One day we didn't have anything to eat.  ... I broke into a concession stand and got some stuff, some hot dogs and stuff out of the freezer."

Men frequently talked about the costs of their strategies in terms of self­respect and sense of personal failure.  Over and over again, they commented that some strategies only worked because they did not have wife or children.  Like the man who spoke above, self­respecting fathers and husbands could not, when with their families, sleep out on the street, use soup kitchens or go hungry, or appear dirty and unkempt.

While only a few men told us they didn't have the clothes they needed, we soon realized that men went to considerable lengths to get themselves clothed at least minimally, realizing that the cost of inadequate clothing was possible exclusion from the labor force.  Here's one man talking about the difficulties of maintaining himself, fed and dressed, as a worker:

"Well, at noon they serve lunch and if you don't have any money, you can eat.  Then, for the rest of the evening, I go back out there and hope that something else comes along.  Other than that, the most hardest thing is to stay clean and presentable.  You know sometimes you can't change, you can't dress, because you don't have a place to put your clothes to go out and ask for a job where you need to be clean. (DW13)"

Another man describes his strategies for staying clothed:

"Well, you know your boots or your tennis shoes or whatever, blow out on you and you don't have the money.  The next day you go to work and maybe you duct­tape your shoes together until you've got enough money to go and get another pair of shoes.  That can sometimes be a while, especially if you end up with car problems and other expenses in the meantime.  I have a lot of socks with holes in the...  I shop at Salvation Army when I get to the point where I've got to have something."

Many men's labor barely allows them the resources to get themselves to work the next day.  Men earning $5 and $6 an hour, but spending large portions of their income on nightly or weekly residences, pre­cooked and carry­out food, and the clothing necessary to stay on the job, had few resources to share, and little cushion to fall back on.

Where do men get assistance?

Men in the study were consistently on the margin:

"Typical day, now, is waking up broke."

Men, without access to welfare, Medicaid, and job­related benefits, were often "on the street" when things went wrong.  While the women we interviewed in our study of low­income mothers had a range of resources from which they could request at least minimal assistance, men had relatively few.  Women's resources included federal, state and local agencies; private not­for­profits; their own social networks; as well as the men to which they were connected.  Men had few such resources available to them.  While at least six of the men we interviewed had served in the military, none of these men looked to the military for benefits or assistance, except in the case of medical emergency.

Although other research on men (Anderson, 1990) indicates that some low­income fathers may live off of women's welfare benefits, and that young men may remain in welfare­supported households of their mothers or other relatives (Sullivan,1989), only two men had recently lived with women who were themselves on welfare.  One of these men had moved out, when he realized that his presence put the woman, his adult daughter, at risk of losing her welfare benefits.  Men who look to male friends and relatives for assistance tend, in the way documented by Sullivan (1989), to seek assistance in locating employment, rather than cash.

Men get assistance from soup kitchens, from shelters, and, much more rarely, through veteran's benefits.  They receive assistance from their families.  The occasionally receive assistance from their friends.  Men in the study most often received one­time assistance to meet a need.

"A lot of time I eats around here [day labor pick-up] you know.  Peoples bring food.  Or there's the Salvation Army.  The majority of time I'll go and buy something you know.  I like to eat a good solid junk food.  ...  Well, sometimes people just bring sandwiches you know and leave them on the inside [of the day labor building], but if you're not there at the time when they bring them then you will miss out.  You won't get any."

Almost all of the men stressed that, even though they used soup kitchens, they purchased food whenever they could:

"When I'm working, I usually eat at fast food places....  If I haven't worked that day or something and I don't have any money...  sometimes I eat dinner at the Salvation Army.  There's different places.  Most of the time when I'm working I go to fast food places."

In almost all of these cases, men alluded to the lack of self­respect associated with needing and asking for the help, with using emergency services, and with being unable to provide for women and children important to them.  Using services, rather than purchasing what is needed and not working demoralize these men even when they can get what they need in other ways:

"One week, four days out of a week one time I didn't work.  It was bad and stuff.  We didn't run out of food.  There's always food at the house.  And just for the little things on the side.  You know, like hygiene and stuff, soap, shampoos, shoes.  It cuts me up if I don't work.  And, but that's my worst is not being able to work.  It really tears me apart."

What are men's relationship to their children?

Where women's lives are usually organized around the need to support their children, men's lives often reflect, in the men's own eyes, their failures as providers of their children.  Men talk repeatedly of the importance of their children to them, and the meaning that children give their lives.  Children, for fathers, as well as mothers, provide a core of life happiness and satisfaction:

"The best week I ever had was when my daughter was born ...  I mean that's one of the few happiest times in my life I could ever think of really having ...  When I had her and, you know, held her, you know it was a good week.  My first child.  My only child.  Something I really wanted.

But having children is not enough.  Men, according to the men we interviewed, need to do things for their children in order to feel good about being fathers.

"My best week would be when I, probably go and visit my kids.  You know it feels good to go to work, go home, and buy dinner or something, because they only see me like maybe twice out of a week you know.  That's not a lot.  A lot would be seeing them every day.  A lot of times, you know, I'm choosing to be this alcoholic, I just don't want them to see me like that.  But that's a good week, to go see them.  And have money.  And take them somewhere.  That feels good."

Men would go to great lengths in order to provide, even if the provision was minimal.  Here one father describes trying to stay in contact with his daughter during a period of incarceration by trading stamps for food:

"What would happen is I would write her [his daughter].  I didn't have the money and stuff so I would sell my food.  Like when it was pizza day or sub day or whatever.  ...  Cause when you're there and you're indigent, you only get two envelopes per week.  That means that I can only write her once.  One envelope to mail to her, and the other self­addressed.  There's always a way to do something, man.  You have to think, you have to be enterprising.  She saved all those things that I sent her.  I sent her little cartoons, you know.  I had guys that would draw stuff, little cartoons, letters, and everything.  And when I got out, she had this big old bag.  A big, old bag with everything inside it."

But men's experience of fatherhood is permeated by their identification of their own failures.  Life without contact with their children was painful.  Only a handful of fathers talk about positive aspects of leaving responsibility for children behind.  By and large, fathers respond to the questions about life without children as this man did:

"Almost unbearable.  (sobbing).  For Thanksgiving, this past year, I just packed up and went up, because I wanted to be ...  and I wound up going back to jail ... she found out I was there, and before I even had a chance to see the kids she had me thrown in jail.

Over and over again, men talk of themselves as fathers who are failing:

"I wish I could be a better father."
"To me fatherhood is about being there ... contributing something ...  The first effort I guess is to get there and physically be there so she could see what I'm trying to do or at least I'm trying to do something.  Right now, like I say, I've been falling very short."
"Right now I'm not being a really good father.  Not doing the things I should be doing.  I'm not talking to my daughter because of the blocks I've put between me and my wife."
"The only reason I don't see them [his children] more is because I want them to be able to look up to me and I don't think my appearance or status is good enough to be round.  That's the only reasons I won't be around them.  You know, because I don't want them to see me as a low figure ...  I don't like to be round them because I can't do that much for them, you know, take them out, give them money, buy them clothes."

Fatherhood is inextricably bound up in work and in providing financially for children.  When fathers can not do so, they are often separated from their children, not just by the legal system or by the mothers, but by their own shame and sense of degradation.

Men and Women Compared

Women like those we interviewed for Making Ends Meet and men like those described in this work are tied together through their own previous relationships and through the children they produce.  Because we employed a similar interview strategy in our work with men as in our work with low income mothers, it is possible to compare the women from Making Ends Meet with the men we have more recently interviewed.  In comparison, we find that women's profiles of work, residence, material hardship, assistance, and their relationship to their own children all differ dramatically from those of the men with whom they are associated in parenthood.


Women, like men, find low­wage work precarious.  However, women's jobs differ from men's both in the nature of the work and in the degree of instability.  In part because their children's welfare almost always come first and because women include the option of welfare in their deliberations, women demand a certain degree of stability in their work.  One mother in Making Ends Meet reported that she had been laid off three times between April 1990 and October 1991.  However, the majority of men in our sample had held multiple jobs in the month preceding the interview.  While many women face occupation options that threaten their strength and their health, few perceived themselves, as did many of the men, as "aging out" of the labor market when in their forties and fifties.

Current Residence and Material Hardship

For the men we interviewed, two hardships are overwhelmingly preponderant: homelessness and hunger.  Many men alternate between shelters and the street.  Another large group are in unstable shared arrangements.  Mothers also report a significant exposure to material hardship.  In San Antonio, in particular, wage­reliant mothers — women who, like our men, were dependent on their labor force activity — reported a high level of hardships as indicated by percentage of the sample in the table below.

Material Hardship Experienced by 41 Low-Income,
Wage Reliant Women in San Antonio (Edin and Lein, 1997)
Hardship Percentage Hardship Percentage
No food 27% Hungry 5%
Needed doctor 39% No health benefit 41%
Utilities Off 12% Housing quality 39%
Public Housing 22% Shared Housing 22%
No Phone 42% Winter clothes 12%
Evicted 7% Homeless 7%

But, where women have major problems with the quality of their housing, only a small minority have experienced homelessness.

While a quarter of the mothers have days with no food in the home, they have resources that prevent them and their children from going hungry most of the time.  However, the hardships reported by men are qualitatively different.  Half the men have recently experienced days with no food, and days when they went hungry.  For a subset of these men the lack of food put their ability to work at risk.


Because of the structure of welfare and the organization of their social networks, low­income mothers seek out and receive assistance from a range of sources, as indicated for the San Antonio wage reliant women:

Source of Cash Assistance for 41 Low-Income,
Wage-Reliant Women in San Antonio (Edin and Lein, 1997)
Assistance Source Percentage of Mothers Receiving
Help from family and friends 32%
Help from boyfriend 17%
Help from absent father 39%
Help from agencies 34%

It is important to realize that these percentages are considerably understated, since they only include cash assistance.  Receipts from fathers who appear regularly with such necessities as diapers, baby formula, and school clothes are not included.  Similarly, receipts from agencies that provide in-kind assistance are also not included.

Men almost never receive direct cash assistance from either the networks or agencies that came to their aide.  In fact, men were reluctant to seek cash assistance in most cases, because the request for cash assistance marks them as failures in their own eyes.  Men most frequently receive emergency food and emergency housing from both helping agencies and members of their families and friendship networks.  Their ongoing receipt of cash assistance was minimal.  In fact, housing with network members often depended on their ability to contribute cash to the households.

Relationships with Children

Both men and women reported that children are a central source of happiness, self­respect, and focus in decision­making.  However, women have out often learned that they themselves must hold the ultimate responsibility for their children:

"He says he can take care of me and the baby.  But like I said, it won't be easy.  I mean, I know I shouldn't plan on depending on him, because it can end at any time.  I don't report it because I know I cannot count on it.  If I'm learning anything, it's the fact that I'm going to have to do something where I can take care of us.  You never know what's going to happen.  Having this baby taught me a lot young.  You do grow up fast."

What men learn is that they are incapable of being reliable family supports.


The inability of men to put together a package of earnings and other supports that allows them to be self­respecting fathers and husbands diminishes not only their self­respect, but affects their daily decisions about whether to visit their children and their children's mothers.  In general, men's lives were focused on:

Their inability to perform as regular wage earners cut them off from children and their children's mothers.  However, remarkably, these men kept on trying to work — over periods of years.  The men in this study had not descended into full­time homelessness; they had not abandoned their families; they kept striving for work in an economy where their value was so low they could barely support themselves.


Anderson, E. 1993.  "Sex Codes and Family Life among Poor Inner­City Youths" In Lerman, R. I. and T. J. Ooms, eds.  Young Unwed Fathers:  Changing Roles and Emerging Policies.  Philadelphia:  Temple University Press.

Anderson, E. 1990.  Streetwise.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Aponte, R. 1991.  "Urban Hispanic Poverty:  Disaggregations and Explanations."  Social Problems 38 (515-528).

Bourgeouis, P. 1995.  In Search of Respect.  Cambridge University Press.

Braver, S. et al. 1991.  "Non­custodial Parent's Report of Child Support Payments."  Family Relations 40 (180-185).

Cervera, N. 1991.  "Unwed Teenage Pregnancy:  Family Relationships with the Father of the Baby."  Families in Society 72 (29-37).

Christmon, K. 1990.  "Parental Responsibility of African­American Unwed Adolescent Fathers."  Adolescence 25 (645-653).

Comer, J. P. 1989.  "Black Fathers."  In Fathers and the Family.  New Jersey:  Analytic Press.

Conner, M. E. 1986.  "Some Parenting Attitudes of Young Black Fathers."  In Lewis and Salt, eds.  Men in Families.  Beverly Hills:  Sage Publications.

Dash, L. 1989.  When Children Want Children:  The Urban Crisis of Teenage Childbearing.  New York:  William Morrow.

Edin, K. and L. Lein. 1997.  Making Ends Meet:  How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low­Wage Work.  New York:  Russell Sage Foundation.

Edin, K. and L. Lein. 1996.  Work, Welfare, and Single Mothers'Economic Survival Strategies.  American Sociological Review 61 pp. 253-266.

Ellster, A. B., and M. E. Lamb, eds. 1986.  Adolescent Fatherhood.  Hillsdale, N.J.:  Lawrence Erlbaum.

England, P. and G. Farkas. 1986.  Households, Employment, and Gender:  A Social, Economic, and Demographic View.  New York:  Aldine Pub. Co.

Frisbee, P. 1994.  "Birthweight and Infant Mortality in the Mexican Origin and Anglo Populations."  Social Science Quarterly 75(881-895).

Furstenberg, F. 1991.  Divided Families.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard University Press.

Leibow, E. 1967.  Tally's Corner:  A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men.  Boston:  Little Brown.

Rose, Stephen. 1992.  Social Stratification in the United States.  New York:  The New Press.

Sullivan, Mercer. 1989.  'Getting Paid':  Youth Crime and Working the Inner City.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press

U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means.  Greenbook.  1993.

Wilson, W. J. 1987.  The Truly Disadvantaged:  The Inner­City, the Underclass and Public Policy.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.


1.  Funding for this work was provided by Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, United States Department of Health and Human Services.

2.  More of the men in the Northeast were recruited through women who knew them, and men recruited in this way tended to be in somewhat better circumstances.  The men and women were more confident of their relationships and enjoyed more stable life circumstances.

3.  In this analysis the ethnographic data has drawn more heavily from the San Antonio­Austin site.

4.  The different profiles of current housing reflect several factors:  The Northeast sample could not sustain homelessness during the winter.  Men in the Northeast sample were slightly better off than men in the Texas sample.  The particularly high rate of shared housing, in Texas, was due primarily to housing patterns among the Mexican­American sample.

Where to?

HHS Fatherhood Initiative ]

ASPE Home Page | HHS Home Page ]