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The food stamp challenge: highlighting issues with social services

Recent discussion I've seen on this topic has prompted me to write about it. And no, this isn't specifically, on its own, a men's rights or antifeminist issue. However, it is related in that women are disproportionately served by the Health and Human Services (welfare) department of the U.S. government, and in affording themselves of those benefits, they necessitate government pursuit of paternal child support.
This is not a complaint (well, maybe a little;)  but for purposes of this discussion, a statement of reality, based in the gender disparity in custody awards, and how that effects income and eligibility. There is also a difference in tendency to rely on social services for income assistance. This study is old and small, but it raises an interesting point and some interesting questions.
The point:
while single fathers report more income from employment (wages and salaries or self-employment) and savings and investment (interest, dividend, rental, and other property income), single mothers report much more income from assistance sources (for example, unemployment, workers’ compensation, public assistance, alimony, and child support).
The questions:

1) Why? Why is it that more custodial fathers work and support their families, while more custodial mothers rely on the government?
This question doesn't have a simple answer. It would be easy, as a woman, to attribute factors cited in feminist complaints as reasons why women need support; lack of education, unemployability, the difficulty of juggling single parenthood and a career... but reality does not back up those complaints. Women have been given boost after boost in the American education system. We have special funding for post-secondary education, special funding for business goals... even Walmart has gotten in on the "special initiatives for women" gig. With educational initiatives for women dating back to the 60s, and both government and private initiatives spanning all of that time, there must be another explanation for the discrepancy. When you eliminate lack of opportunity and lack of funding, you're left with choice as the obvious answer.

This choice is facilitated by a system designed to protect custodial mothers from poverty. Custodial parent-designated eligibility for a number of social programs (including medicaid insurance and WIC) begins during or may be enhanced by pregnancy, meaning that unwed mothers may become dependent upon social services for income assistance prior to the effects which child custody can have on ability to attend school or accept work. Income caps on these programs discourage initiative to step up from a welfare income to an independent source, particularly when doing so can result in a loss of "income" before it results in a financial gain.
2) Why is this not also happening with single fathers?
This may be partly explained in differences in the manner in which custody is determined. For mothers, custody begins at conception, as it obviously cannot be altered during gestation. Therefore, for the never-married single mother, maternal custody at birth is a given unless it is contested by, or conceded to the father. In the event of divorce, the default award is similar due to existing social standards.

Paternal custody in unwed circumstances, then will necessarily depend upon one of two things; either mutual choice by both parents, or evidence-based decision by a judge. The latter is dependent upon proof by the petitioning father that he is a fit parent, able to provide for the child, or that the mother is so unfit that by comparison he is the better choice.

The initial-custody gap (wherein the approach to paternal custody begins with a circumstance of maternal custody) promotes a secondary circumstance which has a direct effect on the father's employment status: Mandatory child support payments. In order to make those payments, the payer must have an income, which in most cases necessitates being employed. 

Social standards also contribute to the employment factor; It has been traditionally expected that fathers will be employed, whether single and noncustodial, or married. Though standards have recently begun to evolve to a more gender-neutral approach to parenting, Census bureau data between 1994 and 2010 shows that in the majority of married couple family groups with one stay-at-home parent, that parent has been the mother. This creates a gap in numbers, wherein custody determination begins with unemployed mothers more than with unemployed fathers.

Though food stamps are universally available based on income standards, an unemployed or underemployed single parent with residential custody will necessarily receive a larger stipend than a single individual, or a non-custodial parent.

Further, under federal rules, to be eligible for benefits a household's income and resources must meet three tests: Gross monthly income, Net income, and assets. The first test measures the applicant's gross income (before deductions) against the poverty level to determine eligibility. The second test measures the applicant's net (after deductions) against the poverty level to determine the size of the stipend. The third measures the applicant's available financial resources: households without an elderly or disabled member must have assets of $2,000 or less, and households with an elderly or disabled member must have assets of $3,250 or less, but in many cases, it is the first test which disqualifies a noncustodial father paying child support. In plain English: The first test counts the noncustodial parent's child support payments, often garnished before he receives his paycheck, against his eligibility for food stamps. A man may be assessed a high debt at a judge's whim (not because it's legal, but because once his pay has been confiscated, he can't afford a lawyer or even court costs to contest the ruling) and garnished at up to his state's percentage limit (60% in my state) of his income before other deductions... meaning that after that percentage is taken, the employer will also take out federally required deductions, state tax, and in many cases local taxes. 

On a personal level, I can report that for some years, this left my husband bringing home 15% of his gross pay. Though his net was far below the poverty level, his gross was just a few dollars per month above where the cut-off for food stamps would have been, were he single... just high enough to keep him from being eligible. Fortunately, our situation did not depend on one person's income. Doing 3 (and sometimes 4) different jobs in 3 (and sometimes several) different counties was not easy, but it kept us housed and fed - though I would also note that there have been times in our history when we have been eligible. Most of those times, we have not opted to apply, but sudden, unavoidable changes in employment have led to use of the food stamp system. Even then, we were eligible for more than we needed based on our household's consumption... I'll expand on this later.

The situation which would have been faced by my husband, were he single, is a reality for many men; income to which they never have access is counted against their eligibility for social programs, designating those with borderline-poor gross incomes as ineligible despite their being rendered impoverished by duel government mandate: They are required to work, in order to pay support, so they must accept whatever work they can get... and that percentage of their pay is confiscated regardless of the circumstances that creates, but still counts against their eligibility for government assistance. When your government can take 85% of your income for various reasons and still deny you assistance because on paper you "have" too much, you can't afford to rely on welfare for support.

Custodial parents, on the other hand, may base their eligibility on a larger household by virtue of that custody. There is no mandate requiring custodial parents to hold a paying job, and there are some programs available only to families with children (like the Healthy Start end of the medicaid system, and WIC, the name of which - Women, Infants, Children - is even gendered.) To a point, by qualifying for multiple programs, a single, unemployed or underemployed custodial parent can actually "earn" more through the health and human services department than a full-time worker brings home. While receipt of child support may reduce the dollar amount of services received, unlike for the payer, it does not do so based on income not received by the applicant. Aside from collected taxes (which may be returned as a refund later,) the custodial applicant actually has all of the money considered income for the purpose of determining eligibility. Further, the assessment of that income often divides it between one person more than the number of "earners" (the kids, plus one parent,) and the parent can claim dependent care (babysitting) costs against the income listed. In all, it is much easier for a low-income single parent - more often the mother - to qualify for assistance than for a noncustodial parent - more often the father. 

These combined factors lead to the prevalence of custodial fathers starting out ineligible for assistance due to existing employment circumstances, rather than starting out with the use of social services as a form of financial support.
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