Academic journal article The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law

Don't Forget Dad: Addressing Women's Poverty by Rethinking Forced and Outdated Child Support Policies

Academic journal article The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law

Don't Forget Dad: Addressing Women's Poverty by Rethinking Forced and Outdated Child Support Policies

Article excerpt


In the dialogues regarding practice and theory in reducing poverty among women, especially mothers, the inextricably linked issues surrounding low-income men must be simultaneously considered. When the mothers are poor, the fathers are also often poor and can face similar economic barriers.1 When fathers have been considered in social policy addressing women's poverty, they have too often been considered primarily as an enemy to be pursued rather than a fellow victim of poverty's wrath, and potential partner towards the cure.2 We want someone to blame, and many assume that impoverished single mothers are best served by always being encouraged-and even forced-to pursue the noncustodial fathers for financial support through adversarial means.3

Mothers applying for welfare cash assistance, Medicaid, food stamps, or a child-care voucher can be forced to sue the fathers to initiate child support obligations, with payments often owed to the government to reimburse the cost of the public assistance provided.4 Choices available to middle class and wealthy women are stolen from poor mothers, and dignity stripped from the fathers.5 The long outdated notions of bastardy acts, when single mothers were criminalized and forced into court to protect society from the burden of their illegitimate children, still exist.6

The potential for collaboration between low-income mothers and fathers can be severely hampered by the forced child support and paternity requirements, and polarization can result. The notion of supporting the potential of the parents to work together, and possibly be together, reeks of conservative marriage promotion efforts.7 In addition, concern for the welfare of fathers risks being lumped within the realm of more extreme "fatherhood rights" organizations that unfortunately perpetuate the myth of a battle between poor mothers and fathers.8

Although we may crave to line up on one side of the fight, the reality is that there are no sides. Low-income mothers and fathers simply do not all fit within current theoretical or politically themed boxes.

This Article seeks to ensure low-income fathers are included in the discussion of women's poverty, and to address the realities of long existing policies that harm fragile families and weaken the social fabric. Part I considers the unfortunate history of bastardy acts in America, how the harmful practices still largely exist in today's paternity and child support requirements, and explains the resulting harm as well as the interconnections with the criminal justice and child welfare systems. Part II describes the development of the feminization of poverty construct, and how the gendered poverty discussion was unfortunately partly converted by the conservative anti-welfare movement and accompanying racialized stereotypes of the 1980s and 90s into an essentialist and often harmful response to women's poverty. The Article concludes with a call for ending these harmful practices and embracing anti-essentialist approaches that recognize the linkages between poor mothers and fathers, value autonomy and self-determination, support coalition building, and provide opportunities for low-income parents to collaborate as partners in the struggle against poverty.


Historically, and currently, when fathers are addressed in social policy regarding women's poverty, they are targeted as both enemy and cause. The mothers, also targeted as negligently contributory to their impoverished circumstances, are treated with disdain, burdened with paternalistic policies that undermine their autonomy and that derive from historically racialized and harmful stereotypes. The parents are forced into relationships of opposition in child support and paternity proceedings, proceedings that although deemed as providing support can too often cause harm to poor families and perpetuate their systemic poverty.

To fully grasp the nature of the paternity and child support policies that are forced on low-income families today, these policies must be placed in historical context. …

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