IF I SEEK US
Advice on Intoxication
Note - The information below is two dozen years old. Imagine what it is like now!
Dead Broke Dads
Playboy Forum February 1996
why cold, hard cash just isn't enough
Some fathers refuse to pay child support. We can seize their property, confiscate bank accounts, intercept tax returns, destroy credit ratings. We can attach their wages, suspend licenses and publicize names and addresses. We can print mock "wanted" posters that make them look as dangerous as gangsters. And they still won't pay.
It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that President Bill Clinton and many members of Congress demand tougher, more punitive legislation. In fact, federal prosecutors are on the case right now.
But what will these new collection measures accomplish? According to most research on the subject, the answer is "not much." In 1992 the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin found that 52 percent of obligors who are delinquent in their child support payments earn less than $6155 per year. That's not enough to support one person. And in a report by the General Accounting Office, 66 percent of mothers who do not receive support report that the fathers cannot afford to pay the support ordered. (The report also found that up to 14 percent of child‑support obligors are deceased.)
Other government reports show that when there are court orders for support, 76 percent of fathers pay. According to justice Department statistics, there are about 950,000 men in state and federal prisons. A survey of these inmates found that 76 per cent of federal prisoners and 64 percent of state prisoners have one or more children. And there are thousands of men in mental institutions, drug rehab centers and homeless shelters. When you consider the number of unemployed, disabled or ill, the portrait of the deadbeat dad as callous falls apart.
Granted, there may be some overlap in these categories. But the bottom line is that the true percentages don't warrant the hysteria. The child support crisis we've heard so much about doesn't exist.
What does exist, though, is an absent‑father crisis. In 1992 the National Center for Health statistics reported that a child living with a divorced mother is almost twice as likely as a child living with both parents to repeat a grade of school and is more likely to suffer from chronic asthma, headaches, bed‑wetting or stuttering.
A recent study of 273,000 children conducted by Peter Benson and Judy Galbraith, authors of What Kids Need to Succeed: Proven, Practical Ways to Raise Good Kids, reports 30 requirements necessary to a child's development. Benson and Galbraith divide those assets into two categories, internal and external. Of the 16 external assets, more than half are parental contributions, including approachability, communicativeness and involvement at school. Financial support is not mentioned as being essential to the emotional well‑being of a child.
Many of our greatest citizens grew up in poverty, but they managed to succeed because both parents were involved in their lives. It is time we focused on the most critical aspects of child support: the emotional and psychological support of the child.
Not surprisingly, research shows that fathers (and mothers) are less likely to pay financial support if they are cut off from their children. If the government would put one tenth of the time, energy and money it spends trying to squeeze blood out of turnips into ensuring that fathers are allowed to play an active role in their children's lives, the child‑support problem would evaporate.
Women who receive child support are rarely asked to account for how they spend the money, nor are their own financial contributions scrutinized. What counts is that they spend time with their kids. Fathers should be held to the same standard.
According to a 1989 study by the Census Bureau, more than 90 per cent of fathers with joint custody pay child support on time and in full. Almost 80 percent of fathers with visitation arrangements do so.
It's also important to recognize that almost 30 percent of delinquent child support cases involve parents who live in different states. In 80 percent of these cases, the custodial mother is the one who moved, shattering the father‑child bond that is critical to children's development. Still, among the fathers who have no custody, no visitation or no access of any kind, almost 45 percent pay child support.
The answer to the financial child support problem is to focus on more important aspects of child support—namely emotional, psychological and physical presence. If we want to increase child‑support compliance and minimize the impact of divorce, separation and illegitimacy, we need to consider the complete range of a child's needs. Let's create a system where it is more attractive for women to marry the fathers of their children than to collect welfare. The nurturing, discipline, caring and teaching that each parent provides cannot be replicated by one parent. And when families do break apart, let's foster an atmosphere that allows children the closest thing possible to a two‑parent family. This is what real child support is all about.
Stuart Miller is the senior legislative analyst for the American Fathers' Coalition in Washington, D.C. Armin Brott is a journalist from Berkeley and author of "The Expectant Father."
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