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What is a Deadbeat Dad Anyway?


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By Andrew J Thompson, J.D.

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 May 2009 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, perhpas 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 impositons 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 thorugh 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 thme, 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.

The Thompson Law Office provides legal service to individuals and families relating to issues of divorce, child custody, child support aand other areas with the goal of preserving family bonds between children and both parents. Attorney Andrew J Thompson writes articles and speaks to audiences on issues of reconciliation within families in high conflict situations.


  1. Walter says:


    Perhaps, its even . . . “Self-Evident.”

  2. Don Forss says:

    Andrew Thompson, attorney

    I have a 22 yr old daughter who is pregnant. She is in her 5th year of college and she’ll graduate this Spring. I don’t know if the man (24 yr old) will marry her or not. What can I do to make sure he will pay what he owes up until the child is 18 yr old. I estimate that a child will cost $187,408 minmum. Can you advise me.


  3. Julie says:

    I agree with this article because the men who actually see their kids and are involved with them on a regular basis get a raw deal I have experienced both sides of child support one side haveing to go after my ex for child support cause he wouldn’t help voluntary and went from calling them all the time to not at all cause he got married and lives In another state. His daughters dont even remember what he looks like. To my fiance who has raised my daughters from diapers and his sons and our son togeather and he sees his kids all the time we have them a majority of the time but he still gets dragged in to court almost on a monthly basis cause she wants more money from him even though we have the boys all their vacations and every other weekend and shee has them during the school week verses us offering my daughter biological father to drive the girls down to hi
    Or fly him and his wife up to us to see them and he still refuses I think the quality of time dads spend with their children is more in portent then how much money the government thinks they should pay I’m not by any means saying they should not help finically but some men and women do not think they should have to do anything

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