Low-Income Fathers More Likely to Give Gifts, Not Money

dad gift
Nearly half of low-income fathers who are not required by the courts to pay child support still spend an average of $60 a month on gifts for their kids. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Low-income fathers who manage to avoid court-sanctioned child support arrangements still spend equal amounts—if not more—money on in-kind gifts for their children than those required by law to give child support.

A new study from social scientists at Johns Hopkins University finds 46 percent of "deadbeat dads" spend an average of $60 a month on items for their children such as clothing, food, childcare, baby supplies and nonessential gifts.

The study, published recently in the Journal of Marriage and Family, involved 367 lower-income, noncustodial fathers in Philadelphia, Austin, Texas, and Charleston, South Carolina. Nearly half of the fathers—46 percent—said they contributed in-kind support to a child, while 23 percent provided child support through the court system and 28 percent simply gave cash directly to the mother.

On average, fathers providing in-kind support gave each child items worth $60 a month versus $53 from fathers in formal child support arrangements and $40 for those who handled finances directly with the mother. Overall, men who were the most severely disadvantaged were more likely to give their children gifts rather than money; 66 men in the study told researchers they avoid cash payments altogether.

These in-kind gifts included baby items such as diapers, formula, strollers and cribs. Dads gave their older children clothing, shoes, school supplies and often contributed to school expenses and after-school program costs.

"What we learned is that these dads are purchasing a relationship with their children. They want their kids to look down at their feet and say, 'My dad cares about me because he bought me these shoes,'" Kathryn Edin, a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins and co-author of the study, said in a press statement. "We need to respect what these guys are doing, linking love and provision in a way that's meaningful to the child. The child support system weakens the child/father bond by separating the act of love from the act of providing."

Fathers who did not visit their kids gave each child gifts worth about $48 a month, while dads who spent at least 10 hours a month with their children gave gifts worth an average of $84. Each additional hour of visitation was associated with an increase of nearly a dollar worth of essential and nonessential gifts.