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«Evidence of the Effectiveness of Child Support and Visitation: Examining Food Insecurity among Children with Nonresident Fathers Steven Garasky Æ ...»

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J Fam Econ Iss (2007) 28:105–121

DOI 10.1007/s10834-006-9049-0


Evidence of the Effectiveness of Child Support and

Visitation: Examining Food Insecurity among Children

with Nonresident Fathers

Steven Garasky Æ Susan D. Stewart

Published online: 27 December 2006

Ó Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2006


Over six million children who reside with a single mother and have a

father who lives elsewhere are food insecure. This study examines the effectiveness of two aspects of nonresident father involvement, in-person visitation and financial contributions, in reducing food acquisition problems using data from the National Survey of America’s Families. We find that frequent visits by nonresident fathers are related to a reduced likelihood that the resident mother’s household will experience indicators of food insecurity. The effects of child support receipt on reducing food acquisition problems, however, are less consistent. Our results support policies designed to recognize and encourage nonresidential parents to make both monetary and nonmonetary contributions to the lives of their children.

Keywords Child support Æ Father involvement Æ Father visitation Æ Food insecurity Æ National Survey of America’s Families Introduction In 2004, over six million children who resided with a single mother and had a father who lived elsewhere were food insecure (Nord, Andrews, & Carlson, 2005). That is, these children did not always have access to enough food for active, healthy living An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM) 26th Annual Research Conference, October 2004, in Atlanta, GA, USA.

This research was funded in part by the APPAM Small Grants Program and by the Joint Center for Poverty Research, Research Development Grants RFP related to Food Assistance Research.

S. Garasky (&) Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Iowa State University, 4380 Palmer Building, Room 2330, Ames, IA 50011, USA e-mail: sgarasky@iastate.edu S. D. Stewart Department of Sociology, Iowa State University, 107 East Hall, Ames, IA 50011, USA e-mail: stewarts@iastate.edu 106 J Fam Econ Iss (2007) 28:105–121 because their household lacked money or other resources for food. About one in ten (11.9%) of all US households are food insecure. Access to food is a concern particularly for low-income single mothers with children; nearly half (48%) of them are food insecure (Nord et al., 2005). Even after the effects of income are accounted for, single mothers with children are more likely to be food insecure than married couples or single fathers with children (Nord, Andrews, & Carlson, 2003).

The goals of the federal child support enforcement program include ensuring that children have the financial support of both their parents and fostering responsible behavior toward children. To these ends, the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement FY2002 Annual Report points out that child support collections reached $20.1 billion in FY2002, a 40% increase over FY1998 (Office of Child Support Enforcement, 2003). The implication of increased child support collections for children with nonresident parents is that these children will have a reduced likelihood of having unmet needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. This paper seeks to provide evidence of whether or not this presumption is true. More specifically, this study examines the effectiveness of child support payments and child visitation by nonresident fathers in reducing aspects of food insecurity.

While current child support policy affecting low-income families stresses greater nonresidential father involvement, little is known about how father involvement affects resident family food consumption. Research in this area is important because it is known that children who grow up poor and food insecure are at greater risk of negative childhood outcomes. For example, there is evidence that children who do not eat breakfast do not do as well in school as children who do (Bellisle, 2004;

Gibson & Green, 2002), while food-insufficient children are more likely to have poorer health than food-sufficient children (Alaimo, Olson, & Frongillo, 2001).

Furthermore, negative childhood outcomes resulting from poverty and food insecurity may affect children the remainder of their lives (Johnston & Markowitz, 1993;

Mayer, 1997; Morley & Lucas, 1997).

In the next section of the paper, we examine the mechanisms through which nonresidential father involvement might affect the resident family’s ability to meet their food needs. The third section of the paper describes our empirical methodology including our dataset [the National Survey of America’s Families (NSAF)], key variables, and our analytical approach. The results of bivariate and multivariate analyses are presented in the fourth section. The paper concludes with a discussion of implications for the effective design of policies and program outreach to further include fathers in strategies that enhance the well being of their children.

Conceptual framework

The majority of studies that examine the link between father involvement and children’s well being focus on child outcomes such as academic achievement (e.g., standardized test scores, grade-point averages, and high-school graduation), externalizing problems (e.g., behavior problems, delinquency), and internalizing problems (e.g., depression, low self-esteem) (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999). There are relatively few studies that attempt to identify the mechanisms through which father involvement affects children’s social and emotional well being. To get at these linkages, a few researchers have examined dimensions of father involvement beyond child J Fam Econ Iss (2007) 28:105–121 107 support payments and frequency of visits such as social capital, authoritative parenting and closeness (e.g., King, Harris, & Heard, 2004; Stewart, 2003).

The causes of food insecurity are numerous and complex, and include low and unstable income, unemployment and unstable employment, disability, family disruption, and lack of community and extended family support (Nord & Andrews, 2003). Gundersen and Gruber (2001) show that food-insufficient households are more likely to suffer from income shocks and to experience a greater variance in income than their food-sufficient peers. They also find that food-insufficient households are often unable to borrow to smooth consumption over any temporary drop in income.

The effects of involvement with nonresident fathers on food insecurity are likely to be complex, as well, and may operate through several mechanisms. The additional income from child support may increase the possibility that resident families will be able to meet their food needs. Moreover, some research indicates that mothers spend a higher percentage of child support compared to other income on goods used only by children, such as clothing (Del Boca & Flinn, 1994). Indeed, child support income has a stronger positive effect on children’s outcomes than other forms of income (Argys, Peters, Brooks-Gunn, & Smith, 1998; Graham, Beller & Hernandez, 1994; Knox, 1996; Knox & Bane, 1994; McLanahan, Seltzer, Hanson & Thompson, 1994). Another mechanism may be a so-called monitoring effect of nonresident fathers (Seltzer, 1994). The well-known positive correlation between child support and visitation (McLanahan et al., 1994; Seltzer, 1991;

Seltzer, Schaeffer, & Charng, 1989) is often attributed to the father’s desire to see ‘‘where his money is being spent,’’ and visits provide nonresident fathers with information about their children’s health and material needs. Finally, frequent visitation by a nonresident father may reduce food insecurity if the father provides informal in-kind economic support (e.g., diapers, formula, groceries, clothes, and dinners out) to the children during his visits (Hamer, 1997; Johnson & Doolittle, 1998; Stier & Tienda, 1993).

There also is the possibility that involvement from a nonresident father may increase food insecurity. He may discourage the children’s mother from seeking outside assistance (e.g., obtaining food from a food pantry), either due to the stigma associated with welfare (Coe & Hill, 1998; Seccombe, 1999) or because he feels that taking care of their children financially is ‘‘a father’s job’’ (Stewart, 2003), resulting in a kind of breadwinner effect. Furthermore, fathers who visit frequently may consume more food than they contribute, adding to the resident family’s economic difficulties.

Finally, it is possible that the low levels of child support paid by most nonresident fathers, who often have low incomes themselves (Sorensen, 1997), may not be enough to affect the food insecurity status of their children’s families. Similarly, infrequent visitation by fathers may not affect the ability of the resident family to acquire sufficient amounts of food to meet their daily needs.

This study extends previous research by identifying how nonresidential father involvement affects aspects of food insecurity of the child’s resident family, among children in low-income families. We examine the effects of the amount of child support received and the frequency of father visits in order to identify more accurately how nonresidential father involvement affects food acquisition among children in low-income households who have fathers who live elsewhere.

108 J Fam Econ Iss (2007) 28:105–121 Methodology National Survey of America’s Families Our analysis is based on the 1997 round of the NSAF. Designed to study the devolution of responsibility for social programs from the federal government to the states, the survey is representative of the noninstitutionalized, civilian population of persons under age 65 in the nation as a whole and in 13 states: Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. Together, these states are home to more than half the nation’s population (Urban Institute, 2005). The NSAF provides a range of information on the economic, health, and social characteristics of children, adults, and their families and contains information on over 44,000 households and 34,439 children.

The NSAF has several strengths that make it ideal for carrying out this investigation. First, it contains a very large number of children living apart from their biological father, roughly 10,000. Second, the NSAF contains an oversample of disadvantaged families with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level, a group that is more likely to be food insecure (Gundersen & Gruber, 2001). Third, the NSAF includes (1) questions related to food insecurity among a broad range of economic, health, and social dimensions of well being; and (2) information about children’s social and financial involvement with nonresident parents. With few exceptions, this combination of variables is not found in recent nationally representative samples of US families with children.

The amount of child support received and indicators of food insecurity are measured for all members of the child’s household. Yet, an important advantage of the NSAF is the richness of the data it provides for up to two randomly selected ‘‘focal’’ children per household, ages 0–5 and 6–17, including information on the focal child’s visits with his or her nonresident father. All information is provided by the most knowledgeable adult (MKA), defined as the adult in the household that is most knowledgeable about the focal child’s health and education, typically the child’s biological mother.

Analytic sample

All analyses are in reference to low-income children and their families. The analytic sample is comprised of 7,861 focal children, aged 0–17, who live with their biological (or adopted) mother and whose biological (or adopted) father is absent from the home.1 Whether children have a nonresident parent is determined by their current living arrangement, as reported by the MKA. The small number of children whose parents have joint physical custody have been removed from the analysis. Additionally, our study sample is limited to families with incomes below 200% of poverty, which is slightly above the level necessary to qualify for most food assistance programs (Food and Nutrition Service, 2004).2 We also have limited our analysis to White, Hispanic, and African American children, omitting a Henceforth, biological is used in reference to both biological and adopted parents. The number of children with an adopted parent is small, representing about 2% of the sample.

A 130% of poverty variable is not available in the 1997 NSAF public use data file.

J Fam Econ Iss (2007) 28:105–121 109 small number of children (n = 248) for whom their racial identity is not provided.

Finally, we have removed a small number of cases missing data on key food insecurity items (1% of the sample).

Key variables Food insecurity The NSAF food insecurity questions focus on the respondent’s and their family’s food situation over the last 12 months. Questions include (a) worrying whether food would run out before getting money to buy more, (b) food not lasting and not having money to get any more, and (c) adults in the family ever cutting the size of meals or skipping meals because there was not enough money for food, and the frequency with which this happened. First, we treat each response as an independent indicator of food insecurity and measure frequency dichotomously (ever true or ever happened versus never true or never happened). We also assess the severity of food insecurity using our three indicators to create three new dichotomous variables: (a) ever experienced at least one of the above aspects of food insecurity, (b) ever experienced at least two of the above aspects of food insecurity, and (c) ever experienced all three food insecurity indicators.

Father involvement

We examine two aspects of nonresident father involvement, in-person visitation and financial contributions via child support payments. In-person visitation is measured in terms of the number of times the child saw his or her father during the last 12 months, using a 5-point scale ranging from not at all to more than once a week.

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