Washington Post on Child Support: ‘A 1970s Narrative about a 2010s Reality’

January 12, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

It’s always nice to see the mainstream media catching up with what many of us have known and preached for years. And so it is with this article that originally appeared in the Washington Post (Dallas Morning News, 1/9/15).

Of course it’s also a bit galling. The MSM has a way of reporting information that’s in no way new as if it were. What’s also true is that, simply by making its way into the MSM, that information gains a far wider audience than it’s ever had. That means it’s both more influential on public attitudes and probably reflects changing mores. So it’s good to see articles like the linked-to one by Ruth Graham even if it’s tempting to wonder where she’s been all these years.

Her topic is child support and the largely erroneous notion of the “deadbeat dad.” To her credit, Graham hits a lot of the high points in debunking the many myths associated with non-custodial fathers. That includes quotations from the always excellent Kathryn Edin who’s studied low-income, usually unmarried fathers for a number of years. Needless to say, what Edin and others find when they actually look at real fathers bears little resemblance to the deadbeats so common in popular culture.

“Child support is a remnant of the days when we used to think that dads didn’t matter,” said Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who has spent years researching the ways poor American men cope with unmarried parenting. “With our right hand we’ve pushed these men away. We’ve said, ‘You’re worthless.’ With our left hand we’re picking his pocket. … That’s how it feels to him.”

That’s about the size of it. From Maine to Hawaii, Florida to Alaska, that’s a good, succinct description of public policy regarding non-custodial fathers. First, last and always, they’re wallets, sources of income. Beyond that, they’re invisible. Never mind that a small avalanche or social science shows that to be untrue and detrimental to the well-being of the very children in whose best interests every family court claims to be acting. And of course if one were inclined to care about the fathers themselves, it would be obvious that treating a human being the way fathers are by the child support system is all but guaranteed to alienate them from the very concept of fathering. Call a man a dog long enough and eventually he’ll bark like one.

So if the system is bad for both children and fathers, how does it treat mothers? Edin has a good answer for that one too.

Though mothers undoubtedly have benefited from the child support system, there’s also a case to be made that they are its victims in a way, too. Unlike parents themselves, the formal system assumes that the custodial parent is the only one with real authority. “If we give in to the notion that the mom owns the child, if that’s the default position, then the mom is also responsible for the child,” Edin said. “Moms just end up holding the bag for everything, and men are cast out of society. That is a very bad deal for women.”

It’s nothing I haven’t written in this blog a thousand times, and it extends far beyond just the system of child support, although that’s clearly part of the problem. From before the time a child is conceived until long after it’s come into the world, we tell dads they’re unimportant to their children, except of course for their role as ATM. With fathers safely marginalized in the lives of their children, we then look around and discover that someone has to care for little Andy or Jenny and – voila! – that person turns out to be Mom. She then gets to do 100% of the childcare which in turn means she’s unable to work as much, earn as much or save as much for her old age. Unsurprisingly, we end up with a lot of women who, late in life, are poor.

Speaking of poor, one of Graham’s main points is the extent to which the child support system impoverishes non-custodial fathers. Again, this is something advocates for reform have been complaining about for many years.

The child support system as we know it dates to the 1970s. It was originally a bipartisan policy reform, designed primarily to serve a population of parents who were divorced and steadily employed. Divorce meant there had been a marriage in the first place and that custody agreements had probably been worked out. Steady employment meant the system could garnish wages directly from a parent’s paycheck if necessary.

Today, however, the lives of many low-income parents look dramatically different. Marriage rates among the poor have plummeted, so there often is no divorce to provide a formal structure for parents’ responsibilities, and employment prospects for men with low education are dismal. “We have a 1970s narrative about a 2010s reality,” Edin said…

But 29 percent of families in the system have income below the federal poverty line, and many more have great trouble making ends meet. Since the system was first put in place, out-of-wedlock births have become less stigmatized and more common, while devastating wage stagnation has hit male workers. As a result, there are legions of low-income fathers far less able to hold up their end of the deal. They may find themselves unable to pay child support and yet caught in a system that expects nothing else from them.

One of the best aspects of Graham’s article is her willingness to see nuance in the lives of low-income fathers previously seen only for what they can’t do – pay.

Overwhelmingly, Edin and other sociologists have reported, 21st-century fathers do intend to provide for their children. Many of them fail, in the financial sense. But what Edin found, encouragingly, is that with few opportunities to succeed financially, many have crafted new definitions of what exactly it means to be a good father: emotional availability, consistent commitment and direct fulfillment of their children’s concrete needs and desires…

If forced to choose between child support payments and buying diapers and winter coats, many fathers will go for the option that looks more like parenting than taxation. That may be particularly true in cases where a mother is on welfare, because then the father’s child support payment typically goes directly to the state, sometimes with a token amount passed through to the mother and child.

Yes, that choice does look and feel much more like parenting than taxation (an excellent description!), but it is also one the child support system punishes. Child support enforcement agencies recognize only one input from fathers – money. Court orders require them to pay certain dollar amounts; if they do, they’re in the clear, but if they pay in some other form, they see their drivers’ licenses taken away and often enough themselves taken to jail. Did they contribute something of value? Yes, but the system doesn’t care.

Vast numbers of words could be written about the many detriments of changing child support from a matter between parents to one that involves the state. Time was when non-custodial parents wrote a check to custodial parents every two weeks or so. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but what’s transpired isn’t necessarily better. Daily we see payments made to the state, lost, stolen, mis-recorded, etc. And of course huge sums are spent by taxpayers every year just to keep the whole apparatus going. That federal money in turn offers states an incentive to continue a system that few except government bureaucrats seem to like.

Yet researchers say that both mothers and fathers tend to prefer informal agreements, all things considered.

Too bad. They’re stuck with a government-ordered, government-controlled system.

To her credit, Graham is willing to notice the realities of fathers, their motivations and what they do for their kids even under the most trying of circumstances. But inevitably, she misses important issues.

Most importantly, she doesn’t seem to be aware of non-custodial mothers at all. That’s not just an oversight, it’s one that seriously misleads readers. Her take on the whole child support system as one in which fathers pay and mothers receive suggests that, particularly for poor mothers, better enforcement of child support would significantly improve their living conditions and those of their kids. Had she noticed custodial fathers, she could have let readers know that they receive markedly less in child support than do mothers, but still do better financially.

And, while Graham reports the difficulty low-income fathers have with paying what they owe, she never mentions one of the major causes of that problem. The Office of Child Support Enforcement has long complained that state courts set orders higher than non-custodial parents can pay. If Graham had mentioned the fact, she’d have helped readers see that one of the causes of the $100-billion child support arrearage nationwide is not deadbeat dads, but the family court system itself.

Graham also takes for granted that, when an unmarried parent moves on to another relationship, it’s the father doing it. But Kathryn Edin, whom Graham quotes extensively, has found just the opposite to be true. Edin discovered years ago that the most common story finds mothers keeping the children and moving on to additional boyfriends. That process marginalizes the child’s father more with each successive boyfriend.

Could Graham’s piece have been better? Yes, but all in all it’s a step in the right direction. It’s that rarest of birds so seldom spotted in popular culture, an article about fathers that attempts not only to tell the truth but to depict them as living, breathing human beings. In short, it’s a win for decency, accuracy and eventually, change.

#childsupport, #non-custodialfathers, #deadbeatdads, #KathrynEdin, #RuthGraham

One reply on “Washington Post on Child Support: ‘A 1970s Narrative about a 2010s Reality’”

“Could Graham’s piece have been better? Yes, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Graham’s piece could have been much better. That it is not reflects just how much ignorance there is about our abusive and persecutory system of child support enforcement. Child support which is not necessary in almost all instances for which it has been ordered. And there are plenty of data and facts and objective analysis of them to support this conclusion decisively. At the rate of increased understanding about child support demonstrated in this article, there will be no helpful changes for almost all fathers who have had to pay it and whose lives have been completely destroyed by it for many generations to come. Case in point, none of the new rules proposed by Vickie Turetsky (87 pages of them) help almost all dads who owe child support. The rules help agencies, employers and mothers. They do not help fathers and children. Invite to comment on them is so limited it’s worthless.

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