David Pate, an Associate Professor at the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, is an expert on low-income Black men, fatherhood, and child support debt. David researches the challenges Black men face in the social welfare system and how they make ends meet.

Most recently, Pate is examining the impact of  “toxic stress” on Black men. This stress results from early traumatic experiences or life changing events that have a lasting, negative impact throughout adulthood. “You’re walking around with your past childhood experiences that never got attended to as an adult,” explains Pate.

As part of his research, Pate interviewed 200 Black men and examined their physical and mental health, access to health care, adverse childhood experiences, and other factors. After the interviews were conducted, he analyzed their profiles in respect to ten conventional components of adverse childhood experiences that contribute to toxic stress; five components relate to issues of child abuse and neglect and five pertain to family dysfunction.  

“If a man has four or more components present, they are more at risk for incarceration, low employment, and often times have a harder time maintaining a stable life. We are also seeing a direct correlation between these ten components and stress when it comes to paying child support.”

Based on this research, Pate describes how existing public policies do not address the root challenges that these men face – the inequalities they were born into, their often traumatic experiences as children and teens, and the discrimination, oppression, and other challenges that compound these factors and greatly hinder their social and economic well-being as adults.

For example, David explained how “our current social welfare policies only support the primary caretaker of the child, which makes it difficult for the father to really support their child.”

Many of the men that were interviewed shared their desire to financially support their families and be the breadwinner. However, most are making less than $12,000 and cannot pay the monthly or weekly child support payments. The resulting fines, debt, and other sanctions they face for their inability to pay only exacerbate their problems, without actually helping the mother and child. “Often times the mother will be needed to support not only their child, but the father of her children too. Punishing the father doesn’t help the family, mother of their children, or generations to come.”

Pate also shared a story that highlights the discrimination within our current social welfare system and what he referred to as “state sanctioned violence” that can further trigger toxic stress:

“A Black man wanted to accompany the mother of his unborn child to her prenatal visit. However, due to the policies that are in currently in place, the mother’s transportation to the appointment was paid for, but not the father’s. Thus, the father had to walk to the prenatal visit… What message are we sending to fathers who are poor? We want you involved with your child, but we’re not going to support you? This doesn’t make rational sense.”

Currently, in the U.S., Black males face a disproportionately high unemployment rate. “We as a country haven’t done really well to provide a safety net for Black men and women,” explained Pate. “The U.S. tells men ‘Go out and get a job.’ But in reality, when these men do go and look for jobs in their community, they may have to compete with over 400 other men looking for that same job.”

In considering ways to address these issues, Pate stressed the need for greater investment in education, more research and understanding of how public policies interact and affect individuals and communities, and, on a fundamental level, greater compassion and appreciation of the human struggle at the root of these challenges.

“I think often we don’t give a human side to Black men who are particularly poor, who are experiencing challenges with the criminal justice system as well as with their employment opportunities, and who may be seen as someone who is just being lazy, and not working hard, and having [lots of] children, which is not the case for the majority of these men,” explained Pate. “These men start out in a space that is less than a lot of people, and until we start recognizing the humanity of all human beings, and particularly Black males…things aren’t going to change.”

As he looks to shine more light on these issues, Pate is excited to begin two upcoming research studies about violence prevention in the city of Milwaukee and the levels of toxic stress in Black men when they are given employment opportunities and benefits.

If you are interested in learning more about Dr. David Pate and his research, view his recent publications below and his faculty profile at the University of Milwaukee.

Adverse Childhood Experiences, Health, and Employment: A Study of Men Seeking Job Services

Journal: Child Abuse & Neglect

November 2016, Volume 61, pp 23-34

The Color of Debt: An Examination of Social Networks, Sanctions, and Child Support Enforcement Policy

Journal: Race and Social Problems

March 2016, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp 116–135


Dr. David J. Pate, Jr. is also the founder and operations manager for the Center for Family Policy and Practice, is a member of the National Advisory Board for the Responsible Father Research Network, and is an Affiliated Associate Professor of the Institute for Research on Poverty.