Father Involvement, Food Program Participation, and Food Security Among Children With Nonresident Fathers

Year: 2005

Research Center: The Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago

Investigator: Garasky, Steven, and Susan D. Stewart

Institution: Iowa State University

Project Contact:
Steven Garasky
Iowa State University
4380 Palmer Building
Room 2330
Ames, IA 50011
Phone: 515-294-9826


The purpose of this study was to establish how involvement by a nonresident father—as measured through visitation and the payment of child support—affects the ability of the child’s resident family to meet its food needs. In 2004, over 6 million children who resided with a single mother and had a father who lived elsewhere were food insecure. That is, these children did not always have access to enough food for active, healthy living because their household lacked money or other resources for food. About 1 in 10 (11.9 percent) of all U.S. households are food insecure. Access to food is a concern particularly for low-income single mothers with children; nearly half (48 percent) of them are food insecure. 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.

As child support enforcement becomes more rigorous, it is important and timely to investigate how nonresidential parental involvement, which is encouraged by current policy affects food security. USDA offers a number of food and nutrition assistance programs, with the Food Stamp Program (FSP) serving as the first line of defense against hunger for low-income families. As such, it is the most researched of the programs. Yet, to date, no research has tested the effect of nonresident father involvement (child support and visitation) on FSP participation and food security.

The specific aim of this research was to establish the effects of involvement by fathers on food security. Multivariate analyses were employed to understand how the amount of child support received, the frequency and duration of a father’s visits, and other important factors affect the likelihood that the child’s resident family is food secure.

The analysis was based on the 1997 round of the National Survey of America’s Families (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 people under age 65 in the Nation. 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 percent of the Federal poverty level, a group that is more likely to be food insecure. Third, the NSAF includes questions related to food insecurity and 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 U.S. families with children.

All analyses are in reference to low-income children and their families. The analytic sample is comprised of 7,861 focal children ages 0-17 who live with their biological (or adopted) mother and whose biological (or adopted) father is absent from the home. Additionally, the study sample is limited to families with incomes below 200 percent of poverty, which is slightly above the level necessary to qualify for most food assistance programs.

The NSAF food insecurity questions focus on the respondent’s and their family’s food situation over the last 12 months. Questions include (1) worrying whether food would run out before getting money to buy more, (2) food not lasting and not having money to get any more, and (3) adults in the family ever cutting the size of meals or skipping meals because they did not have enough money for food, and the frequency with which this happened. First, the study treats each response as an independent indicator of food insecurity and measures frequency dichotomously (ever true or ever happened versus never true or never happened). The study also assesses the severity of food insecurity by using three indicators to create three new dichotomous variables: (1) ever experienced at least one of the above aspects of food insecurity, (2) ever experienced at least two of the above aspects of food insecurity, and (3) ever experienced all three food insecurity indicators.

The study estimates a probit model of the form:

FOODINS = αFI + βX1 + μ

where FOODINS is an indicator of whether the household experienced this aspect of food insecurity (=1) or not (=0). Experiencing an aspect of food insecurity is a function of father involvement (vector FI) as measured through child visitation and the payment of child support. X is a vector of other explanatory variables, and μ is an error term.

The characteristics of the analytic sample reflect our focus on families with incomes below 200 percent of poverty. A majority of these families have problems meeting their food needs. For example, 57 percent reported that, in the last 12 months, they worried that their food would run out before getting money to buy more. One-half of the families experienced an instance where their food did not last and they did not have money to get more, while one in three (32 percent) households reported that adults had to cut the size of their meals or skip meals because they did not have enough food. Overall, nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of the families in the sample experienced at least one of these three food problems in the previous year, one-half (49 percent) experienced at least two of these food problems in the previous year, and one-quarter (26 percent) experienced all three of these problems.

Study results show that frequent—more than once a week—visits by the father reduce the likelihood that the focal child’s resident family will experience episodes of food insecurity. This result is robust in that it is found for each of the three separate food insecurity measures and for the severity measures. Furthermore, while any amount of visiting is typically found to be negatively related to aspects of food insecurity, the relationship is statistically significant only for visiting more than once a week, the most frequent level of visitation measured.

Receiving child support does not have the same consistent significantly negative effect on food insecurity that visits by the father do. With respect to each individual indicator of food insecurity, receiving child support reduces only the likelihood that the adults in the resident family’s household ever had to cut the size of their meals or had to skip meals. Only this relationship is statistically significant. The study hypothesizes that the small amount of child support received by families who receive it are not sufficient or consistent enough to affect their ability to access an adequate amount of food regularly. Even with additional child support income, these low-income families continue to worry about having enough food and to experience times when they do not have enough food for everyone to eat.