Academic journal article Fathering

You Can't Eat Love: Constructing Provider Role Expectations for Low-Income and Working-Class Fathers

Academic journal article Fathering

You Can't Eat Love: Constructing Provider Role Expectations for Low-Income and Working-Class Fathers

Article excerpt

Using life history interviews with 40 noncustodial fathers in Chicago and 37 incarcerated fathers in Indiana, I explore the construction of paternal provider roles in low-income and working-class families. Fathers with stable jobs retained high expectations for providing but found that employment could limit and even harm paternal involvement. Underemployed fathers, or fathers out of work, lowered expectations for providing and crafted a version of involvement that was more than just providing. The study suggests that a focus on context and process can expand theoretical frameworks of work/family decisions for non-middle class families. Implications for policies include increasing opportunities for fathers to attain stable employment and restructuring work/family policies to alter expectations for men's success as providers.

Keywords: provider role; fatherhood; low-income families; poverty; work and family


Almost 20 years ago, family researchers examined provider role expectations for poor and minority fathers in the midst of economic recessions in the 1980s (McLoyd, 1989). The experiences of "underclass" families were framed in poverty literature, although some scholars argued for the explicit incorporation of working poor and low-income families into the vision of work/family research (Kelly, 198;8; Wilson, 1987). In the 1990s, the national economy recovered, although the economic situations of poor men and their families persisted and even deteriorated. Young men experienced stagnation and decline in wages between 1980 and 1995, and young men of color in particular confronted two to three times the rate of unemployment of European American men (White & Rogers, 2000).

In this paper, I define providing as men's experiences in offering financial and material support to their children and families. Providing is an essential and often taken-for-granted aspect of successful fatherhood. What remains to be explored is how the emergence of new expectations for contemporary fathers--such as heightened concern for paternal caregiving--complicates assumptions about providing. The importance that families assign to men's providing may play out differently in diverse social contexts. Examining providing experiences gives us insight into the cultural work of defining "successful" fatherhood in these families (Townsend, 2000).

I compare and contrast the providing experiences of fathers from two distinct contexts: African American fathers in service sector jobs in urban Chicago and European American fathers in industrial jobs in metropolitan Northern Indiana. The groups are related by proximity to a shared economic restructuring process in the Midwest, where poverty rates have recently grown for minority families (U.S. Bureau of Census, 2003). Fathers in each context share similar educational backgrounds and exposure to incarceration. Although differences between the groups are subtle, they suggest that provider role expectations should be framed in context and in the process of integration with other aspects of new fatherhood, such as caregiving and "being there."



Exploring how men package roles in work and family domains, Townsend (2002) recognized that "locating men in specific historical circumstances illuminates the role of economic structures in magnifying the effects of cultural patterns" (p. 13"7). During early periods of industrialization and urbanization, men's role as fathers was increasingly identified as sole breadwinners in the public domain, in direct contrast to women's role as good mothers in the private domain of the family household (Griswold, 1993). The role of the "good provider" became a specialized male role in the transition from subsistence to market-oriented economies between 1830 to 1980 (Bernard, 1981). As "good fathers," men provided resources to their families through full-time wage contract labor. …

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