What is a Deadbeat Dad?

Since the great debate over welfare reform in the mid-1990s, the phrase “deadbeat dad” has been woven into the fabric of our vernacular like one of so many generational patch-phrases holding together a pair of well-worn blue jeans.

You cannot read newspapers, watch TV, or listen to radio news for very long without encountering this phrase, and it is not likely there are many conversations in a crowded beauty salon that pass without this label being pasted on some man, who happens to have fathered the child of some woman, who is quite unhappy with this man and his actions relating to the child – or children. In November 2014 alone, there were over 60,000 google searches that included the phrase “deadbeat dad” or “deadbeat dads”.

It is difficult to find the precise origins of the phrase, but my first recollection of hearing this phrase was in the early 90’s with Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton duking it out over whose leadership would bring about the harshest punishment against those who would bear this label. Governors in several Midwestern states, where the recession of that time had taken an enormous toll, were elected on the promise of making these men pay for their own children’s upbringing, and ending the welfare system that was so costly at the time, and so hurtful to our overall economic productivity.

An image was created of a man using food stamps to buy beer and cigarettes and never working, while living in his girlfriend’s apartment, which was paid through taxpayer funded welfare checks because she had borne children out of wedlock – with him, or perhaps another man. The welfare system was wrong and needed to be corrected. But what these women needed was a system that ended incentives for bad choices on her part as well as a father’s part, not just on his. She was just as much of a deadbeat as was he. In fact, perhaps more – as it was she who collected the welfare check – men were never allowed to do this.

One force behind welfare reform was to try to force fathers to support mothers and children instead of the government. A man who didn’t support his children was considered a deadbeat in times past – especially if he consumed liquor, stayed away from home, was unfaithful to his wife, etc. But the phrase had never before been directed at men who loved their own children more than life itself, but through no choice of their own, couldn’t be involved in their kids’ lives and/or were unable to support them financially.

This all changed with the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. Combined with the provisions of the Violence Against Women Act, and earlier impositions of the federal government relating to the enforcement of child support, such as the Bradley Amendment, which mandates that a child-support debt cannot be retroactively reduced or forgiven even if it is subsequently proven that the debtor could not have been the father.

So what is a deadbeat dad? Is that a reference to nonpayment of child support? If so, the fathers who do not owe support but do far less for their own children are exempt. Does it mean he voluntarily fails to pay that support, or does it include men that cannot pay through no fault of their own? But how can anyone be sure of the difference between these? Often mothers come to court and ask a court to impute income to a man that he does nto actually have – and to order him to pay support based on the speculative income. If he can’t pay that, does that make him a deadbeat?

In my research for this article, I found in searching facebook groups and other internet communities that the most common bond, or reference to “deadbeat dads” was from women complaining of fathers who did not see their children, spend time with them, send cards or birthday gifts, or even bother to call.

Perhaps there is an important lesson to be garnered from these perspectives. Maybe our focus has been has been too much and too long on the idea of dads as payers of support. Maybe we have neglected what is most important to both mothers and fathers regarding his relationship with his children – the time they have together. And maybe, just maybe, if the courts, the bureaucrats, the psychoanalysts, the custody evaluators, the moms, the neighbors, the preachers, teachers, the media, and all the other name callers, – everyone - maybe if everybody who comments on the state of the family, would stop and think about what is really most important to the kids too – we would realize it’s the same thing.

What it all comes down to – “in the best interests of the children” – is how much time they can spend with their Dad. And if we all do our part just to help make it possible, and not to try to make it happen , perhaps a very surprising outcome would arise – dads wouldspend time with their kids, because they could, and no one was preventing it for a change. If we did that one little thing, perhaps we would find the phrase “deadbeat dad” as common in our language as “eight track tape” – we just wouldn’t need it any more.