Parents and Children Together: The Complex Needs of Low-Income Men and How Responsible Fatherhood Programs Address Them

Publication Date: March 9, 2018
PACT Complex Needs of Low-Income Men and How Responsible Fatherhood Programs Address Them

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Research Questions

  1. What were the circumstances, experiences, needs, and concerns of fathers at program entry?
  2. To what extent and how did programs seek to address the needs, concerns, and circumstances presented by fathers?
  3. How did fathers respond to the offered programming in terms of their participation and perceptions of the services received?

Broad changes in family demographics have left many children without the support or involvement of their fathers. As a result of high rates of nonmarital births and divorce, millions of American children do not live with both of their parents. Rates of nonresidence are particularly high among groups that tend to face more economic challenges: 58 percent of black children and 31 percent of Hispanic children were living without their biological fathers in 2012 (Vespa et al. 2013). Father absence is associated with a range of unfavorable outcomes for children, including poor social-emotional adjustment, dropping out of school, and experiencing mental health problems as adults (McLanahan et al. 2013).

Research suggests that the negative effects for children of father absence may be mitigated through greater father involvement. Nonresidential fathers’ greater contact with their children is associated with fewer child and adolescent behavior problems (King and Sobolewski 2006). The quality of father-child interaction also appears to matter (Stewart 2003; Marsiglio et al. 2000). Nonresidential fathers’ engagement in child-related activities has been found to be linked to positive social, emotional and behavioral adjustment in children (Adamsons and Johnson 2013).

To address these issues, Congress has funded the Responsible Fatherhood (RF) grant program since 2006. The grant program is administered by the Office of Family Assistance at the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. RF grants require programs to offer services for fathers in three areas: parenting and fatherhood, economic stability, and healthy marriage and relationships.

The Parents and Children Together (PACT) evaluation is studying four RF programs using a rigorous multi-component research design. Conducted by Mathematica Policy Research for the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation at ACF, PACT focuses on three broad areas: fathers’ backgrounds, views, and experiences (qualitative study component), how the programs were implemented (implementation study component), and the programs’ effects on fathers’ outcomes (impact study component). Recognizing that RF programming will continue to grow and evolve, PACT is providing a building block in the evidence base to guide ongoing and future program design and evaluation efforts.


This report has two goals: to develop a greater understanding of programmatic features that lead to strong engagement and participation by fathers, and to provide context for the evaluation’s forthcoming results on how fathers’ outcomes were affected by the programs.

Key Findings and Highlights

The fathers who chose to enroll in the four programs were primarily low-income African American men in their mid-thirties with between two and three children, on average. The fathers had lower levels of education, employment, and earnings than men in the general population. Most were never married to the mothers of their children, and two-thirds were no longer romantically involved with the mothers. Fatherhood was thus experienced through the lens of living apart from some or all of their children.

  • Fathers described lives full of adversity during childhood and adolescence, including abuse, neglect, poverty, and the absence of their fathers. As adults, many experienced job, income, and housing instability, racial discrimination, loss, and depressive symptoms.
  • Many fathers shared that as they grew older, they came to accept responsibility for actions that led them to incarceration and relationship instability as young men. Fatherhood became a strong motivation for them to turn their lives around—for their children and themselves.
  • Programs offered content to address many of the needs and challenges expressed by fathers, and fathers resonated strongly to most of the services provided.
    • Fathers credited programs with helping them learn skills to be better and more involved parents and providers. They viewed staff who had overcome similar challenges as strong and inspiring role models.
    • All programs included a focus on skills, habits, and attitudes to support fathers’ development as responsible parents, partners, and providers.
    • Economic instability undermined fathers’ ability to financially support themselves and their children. Fathers appreciated learning employment readiness and job seeking skills, though past incarceration records were often a barrier to employment.
    • Fathers were often frustrated that their child support orders were not aligned with their earnings and employment, contributing to difficulty supporting themselves.
    • Fathers would have liked more help with their co-parenting relationships, which were often conflicted or disengaged and led to difficulty accessing children. Few fathers had a court order granting them visitation, shared custody, or parenting-time agreements.
  • Fathers’ participation in services likely reflected their interests, but was also linked to program features, such as structure and type of content offered.
    • On average, fathers participated in 45 hours of programming. This average ranged from 15 to 88 hours depending on the program. Fathers in intensive, daily programs spent more hours in program activities than those in weekly, less intensive programs.
    • Most of the content received by fathers at the intensive daily programs addressed economic stability, followed by parenting and personal development. Conversely, most programming received by fathers in the open-entry weekly programs focused on parenting and personal development, and less on economic stability.
    • Fathers who received healthy marriage and relationship content reported learning communication and conflict management skills; however fathers were least likely to receive this content relative to other content. Fathers were most likely to receive healthy marriage content when it was woven into a single workshop that integrated content from all areas, rather than a standalone service.


This report integrates findings from all data collected as part of PACT’s qualitative and implementation studies of RF programs. Sources include baseline survey data collected at the time of enrollment for all 5,522 enrolled fathers; three rounds of annual in-depth interviews conducted in person with a subset of fathers from each program; two rounds of data from interviews with staff members during site visits; focus group findings with fathers; and data collected by programs on fathers’ enrollment and participation.


  • To increase overall participation, consider offering daily cohort-based services, rather than weekly open-entry services, especially for unemployed fathers.
  • To engage fathers in workshops, employ program graduates and other fathers who have overcome challenges similar to those of participants
  • Incorporate a focus on developing fathers’ skills, habits, and attitudes to support their development as responsible parents, partners, and providers. Also, consider strategies for addressing fathers’ substance abuse and mental health issues.
  • To help fathers build on and apply parenting skills, identify ways to provide assistance with visitation rights, parenting time agreements, or shared custody.
  • To maximize the dosage of healthy marriage services that participants receive, consider the potential effects of service delivery structure, messaging, and curriculum content.
  • To ensure strong participation in economic stability services, consider having fathers engage in self-directed tailored activities each day until they obtain employment.
  • Explore opportunities to increase assistance for child support modifications.


Dion, Robin, Pamela Holcomb, Heather Zaveri, Angela Valdovinos D’Angelo, Elizabeth Clary, Daniel Friend, and Scott Baumgartner (2018). Parents and Children Together: The Complex Needs of Low-Income Men and How Responsible Fatherhood Programs Address Them. OPRE Report Number 2018-18. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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