This Sunday, families and advertisers in New York City will recognize fathers in ways big and small. Yet, the city’s approximately 20,000 teen fathers will remain largely invisible. Their needs and challenges should be a central concern of policy makers committed to addressing the problem of intergenerational poverty, but they’re not. Despite a growing body of research demonstrating the potential anti-poverty role of teen fathers, current New York City child support policies and Family Court practices miss the opportunity to leverage that potential by failing to adequately acknowledge and respond to the developmental, educational and economic realities of teen fathers.
Recently, the Resilience Advocacy Project (RAP) published a policy brief, Who Cares About Teen Dads? How Family Court Reform Can Help Break a Cycle of Poverty, with the hope of fueling a conversation about – if not outright change to – city policies and practices that impact this little-known cohort, as part of RAP’s Teen Fatherhood Initiative.
New York’s teen fathers could play a critical role in moving their children – who number more than 30,000 - out of poverty. Their ability to do this is directly tied to their ability to work and policies that help them get the education and skills they need to enter the workforce and sustain meaningful employment are the best way to enable teen dads to lift their children out of poverty. Without strategic interventions, these children, by virtue of having been born to teen parents, are at extremely high risk of continuing a vicious cycle of poverty that could render them a permanent social and economic underclass.
The link between teen childbirth and continued poverty is indisputable. Most of these children are already heavily concentrated in the city’s poorest communities; the city’s six poorest communities account for a full 20 percent of all teen births. Moreover, approximately one quarter of teen mothers receive some sort of cash assistance within three years of giving birth, a rate three times that of women who become mothers in their twenties. And children of teen parents are two to three times more likely to become teen mothers and fathers themselves, continuing the cycle. Financial support from non-custodial parents has an important role to play in reversing this trajectory. National data shows that child support helps lift about half a million children out of poverty each year, reducing the nation’s overall poverty gap by a full 8 percent.
The New York City Family Court is the institution largely responsible for administering and overseeing child support - one of the most central interactions among fathers, mothers and their children. As such, the Family Court plays an important role in setting the financial and emotional terms of these complex, often fragile, teen relationships. Yet many current Family Court policies and practices do not adequately account for ways in which the developmental and instrumental needs and challenges of teen parents navigating the Family Court system may be distinct from those of their adult counterparts. As a result, they inadvertently perpetuate the economic instability of young fathers and squander the opportunity to leverage their anti-poverty potential.
Among the most alarming examples of this is the fact that, despite the real economic interests at stake, the vast majority of fathers, including young fathers in their late teens and early twenties, must navigate child support proceedings alone, without a lawyer. Young fathers have the right to, but are not entitled to, legal representation for the purposes of child support proceedings. This situation, combined with the fact that most young fathers are low-income and cannot afford to pay an attorney, means that most of them do not have an advocate present during their proceedings.
This is unacceptable. Family Court is a large and complex bureaucracy and child support officials and advocates have long noted the difficulty that young undereducated and inexperienced fathers have navigating it alone. Steps that may seem simple to an adult, such as collecting financial documentation to go to court, can seem overwhelming to a teenager who may neither possess such documents nor know how to obtain them. Yet these young men must figure out how to articulate their needs, support their positions and assess their legal rights and responsibilities alone, before court clerks, opposing lawyers and magistrates. They must essentially self-advocate within a legal system administered by and geared towards skilled adults.
In research conducted by the Resilience Advocacy Project (RAP), teen fathers reported that this situation engendered feelings ranging from abandonment and fear to helplessness and rage. These feelings serve to compound the stresses inherent in teen parenthood generally and the child support process more specifically. They also have concrete consequences. Some young fathers simply abandon the entire court process altogether, naively assuming (or hoping) that if they simply disengage the entire process will go away. Others go to their court proceedings, but their mistrust of the process results in attitudes and behaviors that can offend court officials and magistrates, lead to overly adversarial proceedings and result in the establishment of inaccurate and untenable support amounts. In the end, irrespective of the specific way in which it happens, all of these end results serve to undermine the ability of young fathers, in both the short and long terms, to help move themselves and their children out of poverty.
The good news is that there are effective strategies that could improve the experiences and outcomes of teen fathers in Family Court and leverage their anti-poverty potential. To start, RAP recommends including an explanatory document, geared towards a layperson with a sixth-grade reading level, with all child support mailings. Such a document could explain the court papers, highlight important legal terms, clarify required actions and clearly explain the legal and financial implications of the form and its required actions. RAP also recommends developing Model Child Support Rules and Proceedings that specifically account for the developmental, educational, economic and co-parenting needs of teen parents.
The bad news is that, as a city, we lack the basic data to truly support positive, big-picture policy change. Currently, not a single one of the city’s major social service agencies tracks demographic, enrollment or outcome information for teen fathers. This is particularly alarming given the fact that most young fathers are extremely undereducated relative to their peers and face bleak employment and earning prospects. A recent study following young fathers found that approximately 38 percent had not earned a high school diploma or GED by the time they turned 22, compared to only 21 percent of all men of the same age. In addition, less than 30 percent of young fathers were found to continue their education beyond high school. What makes their lack of education even more alarming is the fact that young fathers are already part of a labor demographic with the worst unemployment rate in recorded history. The most recent recession pushed the unemployment rate for young people under the age of 24 to a historic high of over 36 percent.
Yet despite their significant educational and employment challenges, as well as their potential as future earners, we know close to nothing about the young fathers who interact with New York City’s education, workforce development and Family Court systems. Because these agencies and offices do not compile or track any data about teen fathers, we lack even basic information about who and where these young men are, what resources and services they need and what programs and supports they utilize. Even more importantly, we cannot assess the long-term implications of adolescent fathers’ lack of education, employment or earnings for them or for their children. This lack of structural attention to teen fathers ultimately means that as a society, we are unable to evaluate the effectiveness of current government policies and practices or determine how to allocate funds to achieve the greatest social return on our investment.
As long as we continue to ignore this population, we will be unable to make positive policy changes to support their potential anti-poverty role. Ultimately, if teen fathers fail, so, in the vast majority of cases, will their children.