Two-Generational Strategies Can Help Fathers, Too

Two-generational programs and policies aim to give struggling families a double boost—for example, by pairing high-quality early education for young children with employment and training opportunities for their parents. Such high-impact strategies are crucial because children remain the poorest Americans, even after the recent improvements as the economy recovers: one in five children still live in families with income below the federal poverty level ($20,090 for a family of three), with an additional 22 percent living in low-income families.

A great deal of the attention to two-generational strategies has focused on custodial parents, most of whom are mothers. But while we know less about how the circumstances of non-custodial parents affect children, there is early evidence from research and practice that if non-custodial parents—who are often young men—do better in their own lives, they can also do better for their children, financially and emotionally.

I recently had an opportunity to suggest what a two-generational lens might look like for non-custodial parents, mostly fathers, when I served as a panelist on a policy forum at the 2015 National Child Support Enforcement Association Conference, which brought together more than 300 state and county child support professionals. The participants were eager to discuss ways of creatively addressing the circumstances of children and families, including how to build partnerships and find ways to serve families more holistically and help parents and children get the support they need.

As the professionals in that room well knew, both custodial and non-custodial parents are often struggling to make ends meet in a difficult labor market. Many parents are young adults, who comprise the nation’s second poorest group (young adults, aged 18-24), with youth of color facing the most barriers and the lowest levels of employment. Children in families with young parents have extraordinarily high poverty rates—and face this poverty at a crucial stage of their own development. Nearly half of children born to poor parents over the past four decades were persistently poor over the course of their childhoods, compared to just 4 percent of those whose parents were not poor at the time of their births. And the non-custodial parents of these children also struggle with unemployment, low-earnings. and poverty.

For both custodial and noncustodial parents, the challenges that lead to this level of economic insecurity—and corresponding risk to children—include low skills, difficulty in finding jobs, and substandard jobs that don’t offer enough hours and a high enough wage to support a family. Personal challenges, including untreated health and mental health problems, like depression or substance abuse, also contribute to difficulty in the job market. Other obstacles to steady and family-supporting work include lack of affordable child care for custodial parents and sometimes also for noncustodial parents. In addition, for young men of color in particular, a history of involvement with the criminal justice system presents significant barriers to stable work and getting on a career path. Fixing these challenges is crucial, not only because it is the fair thing to do, but also because it is truly central to the future success of the American economy. With almost half of children growing up in low-income families, strengthening these families is crucial to the success of our future workforce. And reaching both parents and children gives a double boost, helping the young adults who are just entering today’s workforce while also making an investment in their children’s wellbeing tomorrow.

One important step that has received bipartisan support is the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for workers without dependents. Even though it may seem counter-intuitive that a tax credit for single adults could be two-generational, this group includes non-custodial parents, and access to the EITC would be a major step to increase their earnings, their work hours (by making work pay), and their ability to make child support contributions. While the federal tax system provides a significant earnings supplement to low-income custodial parents, workers without dependents receive a very small credit—and young workers (under 24) are denied even that modest credit. Both President Obama and Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) have proposed expanding the EITC for workers without dependents and making younger workers eligible for it. This would help non-custodial parents who face wage garnishment to meet their child support obligations.

But states do not need to wait for new legislation to improve the economic stability of non-custodial and custodial parents and their ability to contribute to their children’s lives. Instead, states should seize the opportunity offered by the strengthening economy and key legislation already enacted by Congress, including the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). With the ACA, addressing mental health and substance abuse challenges, as well as other medical conditions that pose barriers to parents’ success and ability to hold a job, is a practical possibility for the first time. Until the Affordable Care Act, many childless low-income workers, including non-custodial parents, had no access to insurance that could cover treatment. Now, especially in the 28 states that have expanded Medicaid, there is a huge opportunity for child support and health agencies to partner to help non-custodial parents. These non-custodial parents need to be enrolled in health insurance as a crucial first step. Then the second step is for child support agencies and others to advocate for well-designed health care systems that will help them gain access to the treatment they need. 

These health-oriented strategies are particularly important for young men of color living in high-poverty communities, whose exposure to trauma and violence growing up can affect their development and lead to behavior problems and poor academic performance. Research on young men of color also shows a convergence of physical risk factors that affect academic achievement and employability throughout their lifespan. All of these factors can interrupt normal brain development and have long-term consequences for learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.

States should also seize the opportunities offered by WIOA, which re-orients workforce programs to low-skilled, low-income workers and disconnected youth: in the new law, 75 percent of youth dollars go towards out-of-school youth ages 16 to 24, some of whom are parents of children in the most challenging financial and family situations. The new law removes incentives for administrators to “cream” (or purposely select clients who are most likely to succeed), and emphasizes workforce approaches like customized training, career pathways, and earn-while-you-learn strategies that can help low-income parents participate in career and education programs that truly could make a difference.

But achieving the potential of these WIOA provisions requires that state and local workforce leaders and service providers actively seize the new opportunities, rather than continuing business as usual. To make that happen, state and community leaders and activists who care about low-income and low-skill youth and adults, including noncustodial parents, should be at the table as partners to drive change.

also provide an opportunity to expand workforce services for the most disadvantaged workers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service recently announced the states that were selected for the 10 pilots authorized by last year’s Farm Bill, but all states have the potential to draw down additional funds through the 50/50 reimbursement option. This is particularly important right now for non-custodial parents and childless adults, because they are at risk of losing their SNAP benefits if they are unable to find at least half-time employment and are not participating in a qualifying training program

Another opportunity for better work outcomes could be available soon: proposed child support regulations would also allow certain employment services for non-custodial parents with child support obligations to be included as part of child support enforcement programs. This proposal recognizes that many non-custodial parents do not pay child support—not because they are unwilling, but because they are unable to find and keep employment. If finalized, the new regulations would allow child support administrators to come to the table with resources as they work with the workforce and higher education systems

Our nation’s children—and the young adults raising them—are the future workforce. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by around 2020, “more than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group.” And 40 to 50 percent of all children live in low-income families. We need policies that respond to these realities. Expanding opportunities for parents, both custodial and non-custodial, is crucial in helping these children grow up with the ability to succeed in today’s world and create a better nation for all of us.