"Deadbeat dad" is the gender-specific slang term used mainly in the United States and Canada to describe a father who willfully evades a court order to provide financial support for his children. Used in general conversation and by government agencies, the phrase has origins in the American Civil War and has negative connotations based on social contexts. The intent of the father in paying is important in applying the label, as some men want to pay but, for one legitimate reason or another, cannot. Some people criticize not only the term, but also the methods used to get individuals to address their debt.
In general, "deadbeat dad" is a slang term used in everyday conversation. Although other descriptions are available, many child support enforcement agencies and courts use the phrase freely as well, simply because the majority of people understand what is meant when someone says or writes it. The line between common and legal terminology is not especially clear because of this.
In most parts of North America, people generally expect parents to take responsibility for their children, even if the parents are not married or living together. Although society is becoming more accepting of single parents and is making strides toward better gender equality, the tendency is still for women to be the primary caregivers for children, and most individuals look especially harshly on men who don't provide some help to their children and former partners. Given this social context, when someone uses this phrase, the additional connotations are that the father is largely irresponsible in all aspects, does not value family, is (and perhaps never will be) a productive member of the community and is self-absorbed. These associations are not necessarily true in every case and can be hard for a man to shake, even if he eventually pays his debt.
Role of Intent in Labeling
Not all men earn the label "deadbeat dad" fairly. Some fathers truly want to pay, but for legitimate reasons — for example, unforeseen medical bills or company layoffs — fall behind on delivering the money they owe. In the emotionally-charged context of separation and divorce, the failure of these men to comply with the support order can lead former partners to see and portray them to others as the "bad guys."
True deadbeat dads usually don't have any kind of emotional remorse or resolve about their lack of payment, and they tend to maintain excuses for their behavior. Many go to extremes to avoid enforcement of the child support order, such as remarrying, changing names and working for cash. The intent of the father, rather than the simple lack of compliance, is essential in applying the term correctly.
Reasons for Not Paying
Deadbeat dads often express some common reasons for not complying with a child support order. One is that, even though they might love their children, they believe that the mothers won't really use the money for its intended purpose. Some fathers believe that their former partners have somehow tricked them and that the women got pregnant on purpose just to keep them in the relationships. Others think the mothers had children believing that, with the child support, they would be able to get out of working. The theme is the general feeling that the mothers are taking advantage of them.
In some cases, men refuse to pay child support because they don't agree with the amount they've been ordered to pay. They sometimes are not aware that they typically can report changes in their financial and general circumstances to the court to have the amount they are required to provide reduced. Other fathers feel so overwhelmed with the amount they owe that they don't see the point in trying to eliminate the debt.
Efforts Toward Child Support Order Enforcement
In the United States, California’s 1992 precedent requiring companies with five or more employees to report names and Social Security numbers of all new hires was the first major step toward actual child support enforcement ever made at the state level. In 1996, the U.S. Congress made the California program national, requiring all states to create same-standard systems. Child support enforcement agencies in the U.S. also work together in a no-tolerance, no-immunity program to catch child support offenders of every degree. Deadbeat dads no longer can cross state lines in hopes of hiding, and federal databases also help find serious offenders. Most states use tactics such as suspending driving privileges, refusing passports, withholding state tax refunds, garnishing wages, limiting or denying unemployment benefits and making arrests for contempt of court to encourage men to pay.
Today, many jurisdictions provide formal lists of the most wanted deadbeat dads. These resources, aside from using the term "deadbeat," remain fairly neutral, usually listing just the offender's name, photo, date of birth and amount owed. Websites outside of government agencies are common and have had a certain degree of success in their own right at finding men who owe money, but many are not objective. They often contain forums or comment threads in which users post personal attacks against the people listed, as well as against each other. Individuals who want to use these sites, therefore, have to use some degree of caution, because it is often difficult to determine how much of what is said actually is true.
Effect on Visitation
Women who fail to receive child support often are hurt and angry about their situation. They sometimes retaliate against fathers who don't pay support by refusing to let them see their children. In general, legal professionals in the United States do not advise mothers to do this, because a father's deadbeat status is not tied whatsoever to the visitation decision. Regardless of how much the father owes, he still has the right to attend the visitations he is legally allowed. Mothers who withhold visitation can find themselves in legal troubles of their own for not following the orders of the court.
Even though fathers who are not paying support might legally have the right to see their children, many don't. They often know that showing up at a visitation puts them at risk for arrest, so they frequently choose to "lay low" on purpose. The failure to attend the visitations typically becomes another source of conflict in the relationship between the mother and father.
Statistically, in the United States, only about one out of every five custody cases results in fathers having custody of their children. It is more likely, therefore, that a man would owe child support than a woman. As the social landscape changes, however, more fathers are seeking and being awarded custody, and the number of deadbeat mothers is growing. A 2011 report from the U.S. Census Bureau showed that, even though fathers who don't pay still outnumber moms who don't, mothers are less likely to pay everything they owe — 42% of mothers received everything they were supposed to get, but only 34.1% of fathers did. This might be in part because women often have incomes that are lower than men, even when their job duties, education and experience are roughly the same.
Some people are opposed to the use of the term "deadbeat dad." These individuals point out that the phrase often gets tossed around before all the facts are proven, sometimes leading to unfair discrimination. Related to this idea is the fact that stereotyping can occur — despite the fact that men of all backgrounds and races can be deadbeats, the tendency is to associate the term with the African American community based on statistical data, even though that information doesn't necessarily account for the economic and social disadvantages that might be present for this group. They also claim that some of the ways government agencies try to get men to pay are not effective. Putting a father in jail, for example, not only prevents him from working so he can pay down the debt, but also can keep him from attending visitation sessions, which can have negative effects on the child.
Origin of the Phrase
Although people usually think of "deadbeat dad" being a modern term, it actually has roots in the 19th century, specifically the Civil War period. During this time, the word "beat" could refer to cheating. It also referred to work or activity, such as "to walk a beat." When a soldier willfully avoided his military duties, superiors referred to him as a "deadbeat" because he wasn't participating in work as he was supposed to, and because he cheated his company out of service. Eventually, people adopted the term for anyone who shirked responsibilities, and they started applying it to men who weren't taking care of their families financially.