Faculty Researcher Kathryn Edin, Professor of Public Policy and Management; Timothy Nelson, Lecturer in Social Policy, Harvard Kennedy SchoolPaper Title Why Do Poor Men Have Children? Fertility Intentions among Low-Income Unmarried U.S. FathersCoauthorJennifer March Augustine, University of Texas
The number of unwed mothers has increased greatly over the past several decades, particularly in low-income communities. Of course, it follows that the number of unwed fathers has increased also. Yet most people know very little about these men, note Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson, Kennedy School sociologists who have focused their research on this group.
Edin, a professor of public policy and management, and Nelson, a lecturer in social policy, last year coauthored (along with Jennifer March Augustine of the University of Texas) a paper titled “Why Do Poor Men Have Children? Fertility Intentions among Low-Income Unmarried U.S. Fathers,” published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political Science. Their study features interviews with 171 men from the Philadelphia area, who speak candidly about their intention to have children, their involvement as parents, and how their children have affected them and their behavior.
“Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the disadvantaged men whose narratives formed this account typically have at least an ambivalent desire to father and perceive considerable benefits in doing so,” write the authors.
The researchers divided the men’s fertility intentions into four categories, reflecting language the men had used: accidental, just not thinking, unplanned but not unexpected, and planned. About half the men fell into the “just not thinking” category, which the authors describe as the couple’s having no explicit plan to have a child at the time but also doing little to prevent conception.
Although many people might expect that the men in this category would be distressed by impending fatherhood, most of the interviewees reported being happy, the authors write. Indeed, many even said that having a child “saved” them, causing them to reassess high-risk behavior and change their lives. “For some of them, it seemed like they desired the children more than the actual romantic partner that they were having the children with,” says Nelson, who conducted many of the interviews.
The involvement of these men in their children’s lives, however, doesn’t always match their desire for fatherhood. Nelson explains that acrimonious relationships between the parents and subsequent relationships with others often complicate men’s ability to maintain involvement with their children.
Although the men are aware of the social stigma against poor and unmarried fathers, they don’t envision themselves in a better economic circumstance in the future, the authors report. That expectation may be why many of them leave pregnancy to chance. They often embrace fatherhood because it offers benefits that they are unable to gain by other means, according to Nelson.
“For these guys, who were shut out of the labor market for various reasons or doing the very lowest level, children are an alternative source of connectivity, accomplishment, and identity,” he says.
The authors acknowledge that their findings rely on the men’s accounts of often long-past pregnancies without the viewpoint of the mothers involved. Nevertheless, Nelson says that the men he interviewed seemed forthright, frequently sharing wrenching personal stories. (Within five minutes, one man declared that he was HIV positive, information he hadn’t even told his family.) “I felt that these guys were really entrusting me with the secrets of their lives,” Nelson says. “It was a real privilege, and I feel a lot of responsibility towards that.”
The research on these and other fathers will be included in a planned book, tentatively titled “Fragile Fatherhood,” which will offer a fuller account of their relationships and upbringing. As a married couple studying unmarried men, Nelson and Edin draw on their own relationship for their scholarship. Sharing their perspectives as a husband and wife and a father and mother has helped them think about their subjects in an objective way. The men they study are neither angels nor demons, Nelson says, but complicated people whose stories deserve to be told. — by Lewis Rice