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:: By Michael Knezovich

:: Image courtesy the School of Social Service Administration

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Investigations ::

Father figures

Waldo Johnson, a School of Social Service Administration researcher, rethinks the notion of deadbeat dads.


Waldo Johnson argues that poor, unwed African American fathers are often more involved with their children than statistics show.

Waldo Johnson, PhD’93, has spent his career studying low-income African American fathers and the roles they play—or don’t play—in family life. Many of these black fathers epitomize a common conception of deadbead dads: men who fail to pay child support and don’t live with their children. But a white mother from Chicago’s affluent North Shore suburbs spurred Johnson to think differently about deadbeat dads.

In 1994 Johnson, now an SSA associate professor, taught a social-welfare policy course at Loyola University in Chicago. One day a student approached him after class. A white woman in her 40s, she told Johnson that she believed her husband fit his description of a deadbeat dad. A corporate executive who had never spent much time with their children, he had met another woman, moved out, and drastically cut his financial support. She then returned to school, preparing to support her household.

Johnson began to question the stereotype that characterized deadbeat dads as “hit-and-run victimizers” who father children and then abandon them. Since that day’s exchange with the North Shore mom, he has conducted dozens of interviews with unwed African American fathers in poor neighborhoods in Chicago, Milwaukee, and other cities, concluding, “If there’s one important take-home message, it is that all these guys, even the ones who come up short,” aren’t necessarily deadbeat dads. Sometimes the men are involved with their families, he says, but in ways that are hard to calculate. They may be shirking official child support, for instance, but writing checks to the mother on the side. Or perhaps they want to be involved but encounter barriers they aren’t equipped to overcome.

As for the white mother’s comparison between her husband and his research subjects, Johnson says, “There were actually some interesting parallels. While people might disdain men like her husband, those men are not part of the deadbeat-dads discourse because they’re not poor.” In addition, Americans tend to measure fathers against a decades-old white-family ideal, in which the father is the breadwinner and the mother stays home to raise the children. That picture has changed as more white mothers enter the labor force, but men usually remain the primary breadwinners. For African American families, a different history has unfolded, Johnson says. “African American women have had a much longer history of participation in labor markets than white women.”

In 1998 the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management published an article by Ron Mincy, an economist at the Columbia University School of Social Work, called “Deadbeats and Turnips in Child Support Reform.” In it Mincy described unwed fathers who couldn’t pay child support not as deadbeats but as turnips, playing on an old adage: you can’t get blood from a turnip. “I realized,” Johnson says, “that these younger guys I talked with weren’t necessarily deadbeats; they were turnips.”

That revelation led him back to postdoctoral work he’d done in 1994, examining unmarried parenthood among 5,000 African American, Hispanic, and white families in Chicago and Milwaukee. Typically, Johnson says, researchers and policy makers have focused on whether a father lives in the household and whether he pays child support. By these “check-box” classifications, poor, unwed fathers fall into the deadbeat category. But Johnson found that many fathers were involved, even if they didn’t live in the same household as their children. They visited the hospital when their babies were born, bought diapers and formula, and made unofficial visitation and financial arrangements with the mothers. The key factor affecting an unwed father’s participation, Johnson found, was his connection with the mother. If that relationship—romantic or otherwise—remained healthy, the father was more likely to be present.

Some unwed fathers express a desire to remain part of their children’s lives but face hurdles—disapproval from the mother’s family or pressure from their own. Johnson recalls one young father who tried to help out, taking a part-time job and living with his family. “But his mother felt anything going to the baby was money coming out of their own household.” Other fathers feared they couldn’t care for a baby. “Lots of research tells us that with the exception of breastfeeding, there isn’t anything that a mom does for a child that a dad can’t do,” Johnson says, yet many men he interviewed believed that only mothers possess the right instincts. “They’re literally afraid they’ll break the child.”

Since joining the SSA in 1997, Johnson, who also heads the University’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, has focused on institutional barriers to paternal involvement and strategies for removing or overcoming them. One such barrier, he says, is the child-welfare system. Social workers from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, for instance, sometimes omit fathers from their case management. He spoke with case workers in Chicago and downstate, finding that when they hear the word “parent,” many think “mother.” Moreover, fathers who don’t live in the household are often excluded from the early case-management process. Their engagement depends on when the mother provides the information needed to locate them.

Recently Johnson investigated how a father’s past interactions with schools, the justice system, and other institutions affect his parenting efforts. Involved dads, he’s discovered, still avoid responsibilities such as attending school conferences, and he hypothesizes that their reluctance stems from their own bad experiences. In some cases, the children go to the same schools the fathers attended, with some of the same teachers. As they grapple with their own memories, Johnson says, some men find they “just can’t go back there.”