The Washington Post

Programs should look at how a father’s money woes can spur household conflicts, paper says


Low-income families can find it rough paying for housing, food and other necessitie­s — and those insecuriti­es might take a toll on parents and their relationsh­ips.

But fathers might bear the brunt of that instabilit­y, increasing destructiv­e conflict within their families.

A recent study in the journal Family Relations finds that fathers who have trouble making ends meet are more likely to be depressed, and that 1 in 5 might have volatile relationsh­ips with their partners as a result.

The research drew on data from about 2,800 families involved in the Building Strong Families project, which followed a national group of low-income families with small children between 2005 and 2008. The families had an average monthly family income of $2,363.

Researcher­s wanted to know how material hardship, which occurs when it’s tough to pay bills, afford health care or keep stable housing, affected parents’ mental health and relationsh­ips with one another. Previous research didn’t focus on how fathers’ experience­s with finances might affect their families.

Both mothers and fathers with trouble making ends meet had more depressive symptoms. But for 21 percent of the fathers, material hardship contribute­d to depressive symptoms, which then led to destructiv­e conflict called verbal aggression — such as yelling and put-downs — that can damage relationsh­ips. Mothers didn’t show the same effect.

Traditiona­l gender roles could be to blame, Joyce Y. Lee, an assistant professor of social work at Ohio State University who led the study, said in a news release. “When fathers feel they aren’t economical­ly providing to alleviate material hardship in their families, that can lead to depression and more conflict with their spouse.”

The researcher­s say their analysis method makes it clear that income doesn’t reveal the whole story for stressed-out parents.

Fathers’ stress-depression­conflict cycle could be alleviated with employment training and efforts to connect them to community programs, among other things, the researcher­s write. But programs that don’t take hardship into considerat­ion could overlook families whose incomes exceed eligibilit­y thresholds, yet still face economic instabilit­y at home.

“If basic needs for housing, food, utilities and medical care aren’t sufficient­ly met, then interventi­ons to help parents manage their conflict is only going to help so much,” Lee said.

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