In today's society, "child support" is formal and informal cash contribution to the full spectrum of child needs paid to a custodial parent by the noncustodial parent. In the United States, most custodial parents eligible for child support are women, who are age 30 or over, and have one child, according to the Office of Child Support Enforcement.

Unfortunately, over half of custodial parents who were due child support in 2011 did not receive full payment, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Innovations like the National Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration by the OCSE seeks to increase reliable child support for the "20 to 30 percent of noncustodial parents with limited earnings" adopting a two generation strategy as the nation moves towards a greater understanding that efforts to help improve child outcomes need to involve parents (and sometimes grandparents) to be truly effective.

In the child support system, cash payments tend to be held in higher regard that in-kind support which can include clothing, toys, books, diapers, food, and providing child care. It is true that in-kind support will not alleviate child poverty, but does that mean in-kind support is without value in the long-term stability and psychological well-being of the child?

New research recently published in the Journal of Marriage and Family Medicine explores the idea that men labeled "deadbeats" due to lack of monetary contribution may in fact be making important in-kind contributions to their children.

The researchers studied 367 lower income, noncustodial fathers in three cities: Philadelphia, Austin, Texas; and Charleston, S.C. They found many disadvantaged noncustodial fathers spent an average of $60 a month on in-kind provisions.

We have a strong tendency to discount the importance of this type of support (non-cash goods and assistance).  All of these have value to the child, and sometimes fathers find it more satisfying to provide in this way, rather than giving money.

Fathers who offer in-kind support may lack the means to financial support their child due to lack of educational attainment, incarceration, and drug misuse resulting in employment instability. This type of support which the research reports is nearly invisible to the court system serves to further reinforce feelings of insignificance that fathers may experience if they are not financially capable to provide for their child. Even though, in some cases, the father may be spending a significant amount of their limited income on this type of assistance.

In-kind support, as the research reveals, serves a two-pronged purpose in the eyes of the non-custodial father.

  • In-kind support offers a means of assuaging outside pressures from the mother and extended family to claim and support the child thus regularly providing diapers and formula are primary types of in-kind support amongst younger children.

  • Among older children, in-kind support offers a way to connect and sustain relationships with the children by providing gifts of clothing, food, books and toys, outside of maternal gatekeeping. These tangible items are seen as coming directly from the father.

When the father provides money to the mother, and she purchases the items for the child, that child may never see the link between the father and the gifts or clothes received. By providing the gifts directly, the child better realizes who provided the items, and it can potentially strengthen the perception by the child about what the father provides.

Child support by fathers includes money, goods, time and a good relationship with the father. In our society we focus on the first and often ignore the value of the rest.  For fathers in poverty, who are unemployed, or otherwise cannot meet the financial requirements, this study suggest that we should acknowledge what they are doing to help their children, and encourage more.

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