Jun 17 2013
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Father’s Day Faces of Public Health: Tim Nelson

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In Doing the Best I Can, Tim Nelson, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard, and his co-author, Kathryn Edin, a professor of policy and management at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, take a close look at the inaccurate stereotypes about low-income fathers and how a different approach could lead to more stable, healthier families. The book also calls for reforms in the U.S. including regularly incorporating visitation into child-support orders and improving systemic approaches to fathers with employment barriers that affect their ability to pay support. According to Nelson, these efforts could result in increased income for single-mother families, social supports for dads, and improved father-child relationships.

Just before Father’s Day, NewPublicHealth spoke with Tim Nelson about the book’s findings.

NewPublicHealth: How did you come to write the book?

Tim Nelson: My co-author, Kathryn Edin, has written several books about single mothers in Camden, New Jersey and in Philadelphia, first in the mid-1990s about how single mothers make ends meet on welfare and low wage work and then in the mid-2000s, she co-wrote a book about how single moms make decisions about marriage and childrearing. Doing the Best I Can, is kind of the companion piece to the book on marriage and childrearing, which is called Promises I Can Keep. The men we interviewed are not the partners of the women in the prior book, but they do come from the same neighborhoods and have the same low income status. It’s aimed at getting the fathers’ perspectives and experiences, which are much less well known than the mothers’.

NPH: What needs correcting about the image of low-income fathers and why is it important to correct it?

Tim Nelson: There seems to be an assumption that unwed, inner city fathers are just after sex and want to avoid pregnancy or responsibility for raising any children that result. And our finding is the exact opposite. These guys really do want to become fathers and they want to be parents. And I think this is so important because if we misdiagnosed what the problem is then all of our solutions are not going to hit the right targets.

And often the pregnancies, which our research shows many of the men were very excited about, occur very quickly within the couple’s relationship — on average, about six months after they start becoming a couple. One critical thing we can do is during a pregnancy to offer resources that include relationship skills.

I think so many people want to just blame the fathers and say they don’t care or they’re irresponsible. It’s true that a lot of these were involved in selling drugs in the past and they’ve often dropped out of high school. But [the context for that is that] they’re dealing with extremely high poverty, bad neighborhoods, high unemployment, a lack of available jobs, a lack of access to stable housing. They’re disadvantaged in multiple ways. So it’s hard to come up with a quick fix for this. Certainly there has to be so much more done in the way of employment and educational opportunities. And a fair number of the men we interviewed really struggle with substance abuse issues and so many more resources need to go into programs to prevent and treat those issues.

NPH: Your book suggests that the stereotypes themselves are significant barriers to change.

Tim Nelson: I think there’s an assumption among social workers, policy makers and others that the families in these neighborhoods consist of just the mother and her children. But we need to reconsider that there are fathers in the picture even if they’re not residential fathers. The men we interviewed want to stay connected to their children, but often they’re invisible to people who are trying to help the families.

NPH: What has been the reception so far for some of the ideas you present in the book?

Tim Nelson: We’ve been asked to speak to staff at the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Office of Child Support Enforcement—people on the ground dealing with lots of these issues. Our discussions seemed to resonate with what people are seeing in communities. I thought this would be a harder sell than it’s turned out to be. People seem to be quite open to the ideas we’re presenting and I’m very encouraged by that.

And my co-author has been in some discussions on expanding the earned income tax credit — it reduces the amount of tax you owe and may also give you a refund — to include non-custodial fathers. Currently you have to have children in order to file for that. Kathy has been speaking with Mayor Bloomberg’s office in New York City where they have been thinking about the idea.

One of our findings is that because the men we interviewed really want to be parents, when they’re locked out of playing that role with one or all of their children, they often start new relationships and are motivated to have other children because that’s the experience that they really want. So if we can [provide support to] stabilize some of these relationships and to help men actively parent their children, we may [in turn] see greater stability among families.

Tags: Families, Poverty, Public Health , Social determinants of health