Academic journal article Social Work

Low-Income Young Fathers: Contexts, Connections, and Self

Academic journal article Social Work

Low-Income Young Fathers: Contexts, Connections, and Self

Article excerpt

Teenage pregnancy and out-of-wedlock child-bearing are the subject of much social concern and political debate. There has been an enormous amount of research in this area, most of which focuses on young mothers (Luker, 1996). Comparatively less attention has been paid to young fathers, leading some to refer to young fatherhood as an area of "empirical neglect" (Robinson, 1988). Although the past decade has seen an increase in studies of young fathers, there is still insufficient research attention paid to the psychological experiences and life stories of these young men (Coley & Chase-Lansdale, 1998).

There has also been insufficient attention paid to young fathers by practitioners and policymakers, although this has changed in the recent past (Lerman & Ooms, 1993). This lack of attention seems unfortunate as there are resources--both financial and emotional--that young men may be able to bring to their families. Social work literature has encouraged us to pay more attention to this group of young people who have been "neglected too long" (Barret & Robinson, 1982). Further empirical work should help us better understand these young men and perhaps move us away from a societal stereotype of the irresponsible young father (Robinson, 1988).

This article presents findings from a longitudinal qualitative study following 25 low-income young fathers for one year. They were interviewed about the contexts of their lives, the connections with their children and the young mothers, and the implications these have for their sense of self. Although some of the young men fit the popular stereotype of being uninvolved fathers, the large majority of them were very involved with their children, thus belying this stereotype.

The findings have clear implications for social policy, especially in the context of welfare reform, as there have been major changes in the way that government addresses the needs of poor families. The young men in these families may be more committed to supporting their children financially and emotionally than previously believed.

Review of the Literature

The earliest studies of young fathers assumed them to be psychologically unstable (Futterman & Livermore, 1947; Reider, 1948) and to offer little support or concern for the young mothers (Vincent, 1961). These assumptions continue into the present, as stereotypes of irresponsible young fathers define popular perceptions and discourse (Robinson, 1988). There is a growing body of research that helps clarify the role of young men in their families, and the extent to which they take responsibility for their children (Johnson, 1998). Findings from national data sets suggest that some young men may be more involved with their children than previously thought (Johnson, 2001; Lerman, 1993; Marsiglio, 1987). Other research shows that although these young men may struggle economically and are not always able to support their children, many express a strong wish to support them and to be involved in their lives nevertheless (Johnson, 2000; Johnson, Levine, & Doolittle, 1999; Roy, 1999; Sullivan, 1989).

The economic context of young fathers is a particularly important one to consider. Whereas some believe that the constraints of poverty lead young men to exploit young women and distance themselves from their children (Anderson, 1990), others speak to a sense of responsibility that remains despite these economic constraints (Allen & Doherty, 1996; Johnson, 2001). In his study of absent young fathers in the inner city, Sullivan (1989) found a strong commitment to fatherhood across poor urban neighborhoods: "In none of these communities is any honor given to fathers who do not at least try to support their children. All the accounts we have heard indicate that failure to support one's children is experienced as a loss of manhood" (p. 57). These findings are supported in more recent research conducted by Johnson (2001). …

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