Programs designed to promote lower-income, nonresident fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives are fighting an uphill battle against an array of problems, a new research brief suggests.

Researchers Jay Fagan and Rebecca Kaufman of the Fatherhood Research & Practice Network undertook a survey of 71 men—all with a biological child under age 18 living in a different household from themselves—across nine responsible fatherhood programs for low-income dads to investigate the challenges they face that may hinder their efforts to be involved with their kids. (They make no claims that their sample is representative of all men in such programs.) Most of the men they surveyed had a high-school diploma or less, had never been married, were African-American, and had an annual income below $10,000. Less than four in ten reported holding a steady job.

The respondents were given a list of 23 challenges and asked to indicate which ones they had experienced in the last 30 days and rate the impact each challenge had had on them. The men reported encountering seven problems on average, though responses ranged across the full scale (zero to 23).

Challenges related to poverty were most widely reported: unemployment (65 percent of respondents had experienced it in the last 30 days); lacking money to buy things for their kids, pay bills, and pay child support (65 percent, 49 percent, and 35 percent, respectively); and not having a steady place to live (45 percent). Other problems experienced by one-quarter to one-third of the men included “keeping a job when I have one,” physical health problems, “my living situation prevents having my children over,” living too far from their children, having been incarcerated, having problems with the law, and not knowing how to deal with family/civil court. 

These numbers won’t come as news to the facilitators of responsible fatherhood programs; federally funded programs are already required to offer employment services, for instance, though they are not always successful. Nevertheless, the fact that serious financial and personal challenges are so widespread among a sample of lower-income, nonresident fathers—and often associated with lower involvement with kids—should spur fatherhood-supporting initiatives to redouble their efforts to get struggling fathers back on their feet. Perhaps, too, they should remind dads that their supportive presence matters as much as their financial support to their kids’ flourishing. Poverty and unemployment hurt families on a number of levels, but maybe they don’t have to be such a wedge between fathers and children.