Tale as old as time: boy meets girl, girl likes boy, boy and girl fall in love (or like). And then some less-wedding toast worthy stuff happens — midnight sexting that possibly culminates in digital dick pics, some frottage, and sex having. For more highly educated, economically advantaged couples, this dick pic/frottage/sex cycle will likely culminate with marriage, a stable two-income home, and children who play little league. But for less educated, low-income people, the cycle will end with a baby, and then with the guy running away to, I don't know, play pinball or find a new, babyless girlfriend named Candi, leaving the newly-single mother to take care of the children. So why does this keep happening? Why do low-income men keep abandoning the mothers of their children? Because of their feelings, basically.
Last week, the New York Times ran a piece about how unmarried motherhood was a good recipe for economic disaster for families — unmarried mothers are more likely to be uneducated, which limits their career trajectory, and are unlikely to ever get married, which limits their household's potential future earnings. They're hosed! But largely missing from the discussion was talk about the men who are impregnating these women and then dashing off.
In Sunday's Times, UMass Economics professor Nancy Folbre tacked the "Where the hell are the men?" question by citing several studies about the topic, which is a largely unexamined one despite its importance in understanding the yawning gap between the wealthy and the poor.
The actions of deadbeat dads damage social perceptions of single mothers and children because, to paraphrase Folbre, it's easy for outside observers to think that less educated women who are abandoned by male partners are abandoned because they're too dumb to pick good guys, and that dumb people probably shouldn't be having dumb kids in the first place (ah, good old fashioned American eugenics). To further add to the casserole of misinformation the politicians and the media have been baking, Folbre points out that people wrongly assume that single mothers are mostly black women. You can see where this is going.
When people believe that women in need of public assistance to help raise their families need public assistance because they're dumb, lazy, and black, the sort of person who uses the phrase "The American Taxpayer" as secret code for "White men like me who don't like women or black people, especially if they're having sex" will advocate against expanding public assistance for single women as a way to punish them into retroactively not having babies in the first place. And the people who ultimately suffer the most from social judgey racism are the children of these single women.
But reality is quite different from perception. Almost two-thirds of single women raising kids on their own had been married or were still married, and the children's father had simply left. And despite the fact that most women who have children outside of marriage are in a romantic relationship with the child's father that continues throughout the pregnancy, in 2009, only 41% of single, custodial parents (mostly women) were paid the child support they were owed. Men seem to be the ones fucking up here.
So what are they thinking? In her piece, Folbre cites research conducted by Harvard's Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson, who found that while most unwed fathers weren't necessarily explicitly planning for children when their partners became pregnant, they felt mostly positive about fatherhood. Women aren't just finding poor hapless men, getting them drunk, lying about being on the pill, and then extorting child support money from the men after they end up pregnant; men actually want most of these children. At least, they say they do. Nelson noted that, during the course of his interviews with dozens of unmarried male parents, "For some of them, it seemed like they desired the children more than the actual romantic partner that they were having the children with."
But thanks to a number of factors, once the child comes along, unmarried fathers can become stressed out and discouraged. Raising kids is crazy expensive, for one thing, and during the early part of the recession, blue collar men disproportionately lost their jobs and had difficulty finding other ways to earn income. This was understandably depressing, and stressful. But rather than handle the stress of parenthood, poverty, and joblessness, the men opted to flee that which they could — the parenthood. Unfortunately, this "discouraged father effect" left unmarried mothers down an income, down an extra set of hands and eyes, and up an unfed mouth.