Dead Beat Dads or
The Strange Politics of Child Support
For the politician seeking safe themes, neither motherhood nor apple pie
will now serve. Bitter fights over
abortion and gender roles have made motherhood a minefield for the unwary, and
no shrewd politician would now come out four-square for apple pie given the
widespread public concerns about good nutrition and about the pesticides used by
farmers (including apple growers).
speechwriters can give thanks for the emergence of a relatively new theme sure
to unite audiences in loud applause, not divide them in controversy.
On the left and on the right, the new phrase to conjure with is “child
support.” As Time reports, “the
deadbeat dad” now holds a place of singular dishonor as a “selfish fugitive
condemned by liberals and conservatives alike.”1
For this reason, California attorney Leora Gershenzon regards “child
support [as] the best rhetoric in the world,” a rhetoric unifying political
figures “from Clinton to [California’s former conservative Republican
Governor Pete] Wilson to your local
DA…all say[ing] child support is a good thing.”2
consensus of support for collecting child support reflects growing public
anxiety about the poverty and deprivation of children in female-headed
households. The plight of these children does indeed deserve the attention of
public officials and of the electorate at large.
But as the British journalist G.K. Chesterton once observed, when
considering any social evil, we must also keep in view the social ideal.
When considering the evils darkening the lives of children in
female-headed households, what
social ideal should Americans and their elected officials focus on?
A raft of sociological studies has now ratified traditional wisdom in
identifying the intact two-parent family as the social ideal for anyone wanting
to foster children’s well-being. The
acknowledgment that many single mothers do succeed—against long odds—in
rearing highly successful, law-abiding, and well-balanced children should blind
no sober analyst to the overwhelming evidence indicating that children in intact
two-parent families enjoy higher levels of affluence, do much better in school,
succumb less often to the temptations to commit crime and abuse drugs, and
maintain better physical and mental health.3
in framing their child-support-collection policies,
policymakers have given little or no regard to the social ideal of wedlock.
Though zealous to reduce the child poverty which parental divorce has
caused, they have shrunk from the task of preventing divorce in the first place.
Indeed, the policymakers pushing for tougher measures to collect child
support have generally acquiesced in the liberal no-fault divorce statutes which
helped to drive up the divorce rate in the first place.
focused simply on reducing the economic harm that parental divorce inflicts on
children may deliver some of these children from poverty.
Yet because the politicians who have framed such policies have done
nothing to reinforce the social ideal of keeping children in intact families,
they have—however unintentionally—actually reduced the likelihood that
children will enjoy the tremendous economic, social, and psychological benefits
which the realization of that ideal could bring.
Worse, by ignoring the need to foster and protect intact marriages, the
advocates of ever-more-aggressive measures for collecting child support have
trampled on the prerogatives of local government, have moved us a dangerous step
closer to a police state, and have violated the rights of innocent and often
Americans would dispute a father’s obligation to provide for his children.
Throughout American history, any man who bore the title father bore also
the title of provider. In the days when most Americans lived on farms, a man was
more likely to discharge this obligation by filling the family granaries and
storage cellars than by bringing home a paycheck—and, of course, his wife and
children helped him with the necessary agricultural labors. But in this century, as the number of family farms has
dwindled, most Americans have found themselves enmeshed in a cash economy in
which few fathers can work with their spouses and children in providing the
resources essential to the home. Until
the 1960’s, it was generally the father alone who worked in the factory or
office to support his homemaking wife and their offspring. Working away from home to earn a paycheck inevitably shrank a
man’s family role by making it much harder for him to teach or discipline his
children in the way his great-grandfather did on the family farm.
Still, despite deplorable exceptions, most American men continued to
shoulder the responsibility of providing for their wives and children.
Deprived of the larger family role possible on the family farm, many
fathers even came to regard their responsibilities as an economic provider as
the very key to their social identity. Fathers thus counted this obligation to
provide for their wife and children as the most important and ennobling duty
(next to that of conjugal fidelity) accepted through the vows pronounced at
was because of this perceived linkage between wedlock and a man’s obligation
to act as a provider that in the case of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, the
extended family and local community often pressured the responsible young man
into a shotgun wedding. Marriage
made the young man publicly take upon himself the duty to provide for the unborn
child and its mother. This
shared understanding of the social meaning of wedlock thus informed a 1923
ruling by the Supreme Court of the State of Kansas in which the Justices
emphasize parents’ “legal obligation…to support their legitimate child
while it is too young to care for itself” (emphasis added).4
The traditional horror of illegitimacy sprang in large part from a deep
anxiety about the fate of an infant who was, in social identity, no man’s
child. Since no man had every
pledged to provide for that child by entering into wedding vows, the future of
the child and its mother teetered in uncertainty.
traditional bastardy laws allowed the government to compel unmarried fathers to
provide support for his children. But
enforcing such laws was difficult, since the disgraced mother and her family
usually tried to keep the whole matter out of the public eye, often quietly
putting the baby up for adoption so that a married father could assume the
paternal responsibility of providing for the child.
Even when bastardy laws were enforced, the modest aim was merely “to
relieve taxpayer burdens, not to alter the economic or social standing of the
mother of the child.”5 Certainly,
it is not government coercion of an unmarried father which the renowned
17th-century jurist Samuel Pufendorf had in view when he observed that with
regard to their obligation to provide for their children, “parents [chiefly
fathers in his patriarchal age]…joyfully undertake and discharge their duty
without the compulsion of the Civil Government.”6
In Pufendorf’s era, it was widespread acceptance of the
responsibilities implicit in the wedding vow which made compulsion by the Civil
long as illegitimacy and divorce remained rare, fathers—with few
exceptions—continued to support their children without any involvement by the
Civil Government, except the licensing of their voluntary wedding vows.
Divorce did begin to occur more frequently in a world in which fathers
performed the task of breadwinning not on the family farm but far from home,
often in daily association with women other than their wives. Yet even in the breach, the marriage vow defined a
man’s obligations to provide for his children and their mother.
For under traditional fault-based divorce, it was the violation of the
wedding vows which gave the court justification for denying the father custody
of the children and for requiring him to pay alimony and child support.
consider how much weaker the government’s warrant for forcing a divorced
father to make child-support payments to his former wife becomes once the
question of fault has been eliminated from divorce proceedings, as it has under
current law. For unlike traditional
divorce statutes, no-fault divorce undermines rather than reinforces marriage as
a social ideal. By allowing a
faithless spouse to sunder the wedding vow with relative ease and without any
legal condemnation, no-fault divorce trivializes marriage, making it weaker than
the weakest of contracts-at-will. It
is now easier to dispose of an unwanted spouse of twenty years than to fire an
unwanted employee of one year. Nor do vigorous efforts to collect child support
reinforce wedlock so long as violation of the wedding covenant in no way affects
how the court awards child custody or assesses child support. In fact, by allowing a faithless wife to keep her children
and a sizable portion of her former spouse’s income, current child- support
laws have combined with no-fault jurisprudence to convert wedlock into a snare
for many guileless men.
defenders of no-fault divorce have argued that its enactment had little or no
influence on actual divorce rates, which were surging upwards before its
passage. But statistician Thomas B.
Marvell calculated in 1989 that the adoption of no-fault statutes had driven up
state divorce rates “by some 20 to 25 percent.”7
And in a 1999 analysis, a team of statisticians determined that in the 32
states which had enacted no-fault laws by 1974, these laws “resulted in a
substantial number of divorces that would not have occurred otherwise.”8
It particularly distresses attorney Steven L. Varnis that while no-fault
divorce statutes have leached much of the legal meaning out of wedlock, “the
content of marital vows” has remained the same as it was when traditional
divorce laws were in force.9
marriage as a social ideal was not one of the objectives identified by the
activists who pushed no-fault statues through in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Indeed, many of these activists claimed that their legal innovation would
actually strengthen wedlock by helping men and women trapped in bad marriages to
move into good marriages. This
argument looks very dubious to sociologist Norval Glenn, who cites national
survey data indicating that since the enactment of no-fault laws, the
probability of being in a bad marriage has “increased slightly.” Glenn
plausibly suggests that the shadow of casual divorce has actually made men and
women less likely to “commit fully” to a marital union, thus reducing the
likelihood of marital success.10 Another
reason for the ineffectiveness of no-fault divorce as a device for moving
spouses out of unhappy marriages into happy ones is that aggressive collection
of child support—initiated to limit the harm wrought upon children by parental
divorce—”reduces remarriage probabilities among low-income fathers.”11
Wages of ‘No Fault’
Low income or high income, a good many innocent fathers have found that
no-fault divorce delivers no happy new marriage and no chance of justice in
resolving the custody and child-support disputes occasioned by the dissolution
of what was for them a perfectly satisfactory union. Although it is frequently the case in divorce proceedings
that the husband has violated the wedding vows and wants the divorce, no-fault
statutes do not require any such finding in order to separate a man from his
children and a portion of his income. In
many cases it is the wife who has broken her wedding vows.
Yet no matter how faithless, when a wife who files for divorce (and in
two-thirds of all divorce cases, it is the wife who files the petition), she can
count on the state as an ally. For
as legal scholar Lenore Weitzman points out, no-fault divorce implicitly puts
the state in alliance with the spouse who wants out of the marriage.
“The new law,” she writes, “elevates one’s ‘right’ to divorce
over a spouse’s ‘right’ to remain married,” so “shift[ing] the power
from the spouse who wants to remain married to the spouse who wants to get
divorced.”12 In the same vein, Varnis observes that “the law [under
no-fault] generally supports the spouse seeking divorce, even if that spouse was
a wrongdoer, by granting divorces with little regard for a spouse who may not
of the continuing power of the “tender years” doctrine favoring the parent
who has cared for the child during the early years, divorcing mothers still
usually get custody of their children.
And under no-fault, a mother’s infidelities usually do not jeopardize
her chances of winning a custody fight with a guiltless father.14
Nor do a wife’s infidelities reduce the amount of child support she is
entitled to receive from her former spouse.
“A blameless father,” remarks Justice Richard Neely of the West
Virginia Supreme Court, “often emerges from divorce courts with all the
financial responsibility of marriage and none of its emotional or economic
rewards.” In many cases, Neely explains, the victimized man is “saddled with
children whom he never sees and who may even have been turned against him.”15
current jurisprudence, a betrayed father can expect to hear from the court
whenever he falls behind in paying child support to a faithless former spouse,
but he cannot ask the court to require his former spouse to give any account of
how she spends that child support. In
many cases money paid for child support benefits a father’s former spouse at
least as much as his children. As
Harvard scholar Martha Minow concedes, even though “child support is intended
to benefit the child, not the custodial parent [generally the mother],” in
fact it is “difficult if not impossible to disentangle [the child’s
well-being] from the custodial parent’s standard of living.”
Since it is impossible, for instance, to provide good housing to the
child without also providing it to the custodial mother, a father’s payment of
child support often means “windfalls to the custodial parent.”16
can a divorced father expect much help from the court in guaranteeing his
visitation rights. The state
reserves all its legal rigor for the collecting of child support.
Indeed, so far as custody and child support are concerned, the current
rules for divorce appear to be premised not on no-fault but rather upon an
unacknowledged presumption of paternal fault.
For however guiltless he may have been in causing the divorce, the
divorced father will probably lose his children and will thereafter live under
court scrutiny—like a criminal on probation—to ensure that he pays the
mandated child support until his children turn age 18.
question, many divorced fathers are guilty of having destroyed their marriages
through perfidious or violent behavior and ought to have been denied custody of
their children and ought to be under court order to pay not only child support
but alimony as well. It is largely
because no-fault has weakened the economic status of victimized former wives
that feminist Betty Friedan, formerly a supporter, now admits, “I think we
made a mistake with no-fault divorce.”17
But the plight of wives impoverished through no-fault in no way mitigates
the injustice worked upon a father who never wanted a divorce nor in any way
neglected his marital duties—and then unexpectedly finds himself separated
from his children and under court order to make child-support payments to a
faithless former spouse who wastes the money he is forced to give her, while
rearing their offspring in ways totally out of harmony with his beliefs.
injustices seldom receive attention from the politicians pushing for
ever-more-stringent enforcement of child-support laws.
In their view, it is in the best interests of the child to ensure full
collection of child support, regardless of the reason for the divorce and
regardless of the father’s circumstances.
“Concern about the effects of child support enforcement on the fathers
themselves has been minimal,” acknowledges a team of prominent researchers
headed by Irwin Garfinkel.18 But
these effects have often been severe. Set
by rigid formulae and often collected by garnisheeing wages, child-support
payments often work great hardship on lower-income fathers.
Urban Institute researcher Elaine Sorensen observes that
bureaucratically-established child-support orders often exceed poor fathers’
ability to pay. Worse, she
complains, when divorced fathers lose their jobs, have their wages or hours cut,
or become sick or disabled, they find it very hard to get their child-support
obligation adjusted accordingly. “The
process for adjusting [child-support] orders is quite bureaucratic…. According
to U.S. Census data, only 4 percent of noncustodial fathers who were paying
child support under an order received a downward adjustment when their earnings
fell by more than 15 percent between one year and the next.”19
Such numbers give substance to analyst John Smith’s criticism that
“get tough” child-support measures are “running [poor fathers] into
poverty and homelessness.”20
a divorced father fall into arrears in paying child support, he may lose his
driver’s license, his business license, or his professional license, even if
the loss of his license deprives him of the ability to pay off the amount in
arrears. One divorced father whose legal fight over visitation and support
payments left him so penniless that he had to live in a tent in the Santa Cruz
Mountains vehemently protested, “I have less rights that a damn criminal in
Punishing the Innocent
policies may be in order for fathers who have caused their divorce through
culpable behavior. But under a legal regime which combines lax no-fault divorce
laws with draconian child-support collection,
fathers innocent of any pre-divorce offense against their spouse are
treated much the same as fathers guilty of dark infidelities.
For that matter, in the government’s crusade to collect child-support
payments, divorced fathers—guilty or innocent—receive much the same
treatment as never-married fathers, now often identified by blood or DNA tests.
Not surprisingly, never-married fathers typically resist the state’s
efforts to collect child support—much more so than most divorced fathers. After all, the unions which create illegitimate children have
never been dignified by any voluntary public vows between the partners.
And in an age of readily available contraceptives and abortion on demand,
many unwed fathers regard childbearing as entirely a woman’s decision, one for
which he bears no responsibility. After
all, he has no legal right to prevent the abortion of his child.
The inconsistency in current child-support laws as they apply to unwed
fathers is readily apparent to feminist lawyer Karen DeCrow, a leader of the
National Organization for Women, who observes, “You can’t have a unilateral
decision in the hands of women and then say he [the father] has got to pay
[child support]. Right now the law is definitely unequal; men have no stake in
the say of what’s going to happen. It
comes down to the whole right to choose parenthood or to choose
non-parenthood…. [I]f abortion is legal, then men shouldn’t have to pay
child support for a child they did not chose to have.”22
divorced fathers, who usually are quite willing to acknowledge their children
and to help provide for them, never-married fathers often try to hide their
relationship to children viewed as a former lover’s accident.
Biology alone cannot forge the kind of father-child relationship that
marital child-bearing creates, even if the marriage later dissolves.
Yet the same state which has devalued marriage through no-fault divorce
also devalues marriage through child-support policies which put divorced fathers
and never-married fathers under almost identical scrutiny, viewed alike as
comparable classes of quasi-criminals, perpetually under corrective supervision.
When Princeton researcher Anne Case analyzed the social effect of laws
requiring identification of the fathers of illegitimate children (for the
purpose of collecting child-support), she was stunned by the “perverse
result” that legal measures requiring “paternity establishment to age
eighteen” are “positively and
significantly correlated with out-of wedlock childbearing.”
And she was greatly relieved that in more sophisticated multi-variable
statistical models, “the passage of paternity establishment to age eighteen
[for the purposes of collecting child support] is associated with a
2-percentage-point reduction in the rate of out-of-wedlock childbearing.”23
the “perverse” correlation between paternity establishment and
out-of-wedlock childbearing in the simpler statistical model may plausibly be
interpreted as evidence that such measures for collecting child-support from
never-married fathers are a corrective only belatedly adopted in areas in which
marriage has already been sapped of its cultural and legal strength.
Further evidence of the linkage between aggressive child-support policies
and the erosion of wedlock as a social ideal may be gleaned from Sweden, a
country with remarkably high rates of divorce, cohabitation, and illegitimacy,
but with an international reputation as a country in which “child support
enforcement is ferocious.”24 As
they consider the Swedish example, Americans may well wonder how government
child-support officials can ever reinforce wedlock as a social ideal while
following essentially the same policies whether dealing with a promiscuous unwed
father or a divorced father never untrue to his wedding vows.
Such policies tend to reduce the never-married father and the divorced
father alike to “sperm donors with checkbooks.”25
Substitute for Marriage
For advocates of vigorous child-support collection, a father’s
circumstances matter very little. All
the matters is transferring resources from him to his child and the child’s
mother. Recent research validates
their single-minded focus insofar as it does show that a father’s payment of
child support does enhance his child’s well-being.26
But will those who truly care about children settle for the relatively
meager enhancement in their well-being to be secured through collection of child
support? Should it be ignored
that many of the adverse effects of parental divorce persist even when household
income rises? No.
Truly advancing the interests of children must mean reinforcing marriage
as a social ideal. For living in an intact family confers tremendous advantages
in physical and mental health, academic performance, and in resistance to
delinquency and drug use. No matter
how successfully they carry out their mandates, state officials collecting child
support from divorced or never-married fathers can never bestow such advantages.
of the current regime of liberal laws for divorce and tough laws for child
support may argue the children’s lives will not be improved by forcing
incompatible parents to live together. But
researchers report that children enjoy significant psychological and social
advantages even when their parents characterize their marriage as
“unsatisfactory”27 and when they report moderate amounts of spousal
conflict.28 Varnis thus dismisses
the argument that “it is better to have divorced parents without conflict than
married parents with conflict” as “highly speculative and
endorsing a regime of casual no-fault divorce, America’s policymakers gave the
nation what Varnis calls “the idea of marriage as a serialized form of
monogamous notarized dating with police approval, and divorce as part of a
rational planned process.”30 When evidence began to accumulate that this rational, planned
process was hurting children, these same policymakers responded not by reversing
themselves and reinforcing matrimony. Instead, they began devising aggressive new strategies for
collecting child support. But in
hacking at the leaves of the problem rather than going to the root, policymakers
have driven down the probability that children will enjoy the benefits of living
in an intact family with both parents. Further,
they have led a confused nation into a bureaucratic, legal, and political
1988 Congress mandated that each state had to establish a computerized
child-support registry. Nine years later, after the expenditure of $2.6 billion, only
15 states had complied, while most found themselves “plagued with technical
glitches, cost overruns, and friction with counties and court systems, some of
which maintain their own child-support records.”31 In its 1997 analysis of the situation, the General Accounting
Office concluded that states had “underestimated the magnitude, complexity,
and costs of their [computer] projects and operations” and had been given
insufficient guidance from the Federal government in trying to complete their
computerized systems.32 California
alone spent $171 million in a failed attempt to meet Congress’s 1997 deadline
for creating their child-support registry.
The state’s second attempt likewise ended in fiasco in April 1999, with
state officials in a fog even as to how much they had spent on the second
failure. “It’s an amazing
mess,” declared one exasperated state legislator.33
that things necessarily improve once child-support computers come on line.
In one California jurisdiction (San Diego County) which succeeded in
putting together a computerized system for identifying deadbeat dads, “a great
number of people [have been] erroneously ensnared by computer error,” with a
good many men finding themselves in legal difficulty for “hav[ing] suffered
from the coincidence of having the same or similar name as a father who hasn’t
paid up.” “The computer,”
explained one San Diego official, “ brings the benefit of serving a lot of
cases, but it also is not real forgiving…. [H]ow do you keep the number of
injustices down? It never goes to
zero.” Some measure
of computerized injustice did not trouble Lucia Edmundson of the San Diego
District Attorney’s office, who
stoutly defended “a child-support net so wide that a few bystanders get
caught.” Of the innocent but
falsely accused, she said, “I can understand their feelings, but they still
have to prove [their innocence]. If
the only alternative is to come to court, then that’s what they have to
do.”34 In their push to collect
child support, some public officials appear willing to push aside the
traditional presumption of innocence.
improvement on San Diego’s system, Wisconsin’s statewide computerized
network for collecting child support(dubbed the Kids Information Data System, or
KIDS) has spewed out hundreds of erroneous child-support bills, forcing many
innocent fathers to waste time and money clearing themselves.
“Parents who owe nothing have been billed thousands of dollars,”
reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, citing as an illustrative example the
case of a 65-year-old man whose children were all in their 40’s but who
nonetheless received a bill for $60,000 in child support.
Though the bill resulted from computer error, the man was compelled to
clear his name.
of other non-custodial parents (almost all fathers) have likewise had to pay
attorneys to challenge erroneous computerized billings.
Nine out of ten such challenges are eventually resolved in favor of the
accused, but the state does not reimburse those incorrectly billed for child
support for their legal expenses.35
its computerized system malfunctioned in 6% of all 1998 child-support cases, the
state of Virginia at least had the grace to apologize to the 2,300 noncustodial
parents (again, almost all fathers) erroneously accused of delinquency in paying
child support. But before receiving
the official apology, many of those falsely accused of being child-support
scofflaws had to gather the documents necessary to set the record straight.36
different kind of computer snafu developed in Missouri, where the state’s
computerized child-support system sent out hundreds of checks to incorrect
addresses and—incredibly—delayed the mailing of numerous checks in cases in
which fathers bewildered the computer by paying more than they were legally
obligated to do.37
in their zeal to collect child-support payments, government officials are doing
more than building costly and error-prone computer systems.
They are also experimenting with new forms of coercion.
In 1995, Florida led with way by employing dogs and a police helicopter
to conduct a statewide arrest sweep for deadbeat dads.38
On the Federal level, government agencies such as the FBI, the IRS, and
the Justice Department are taking on responsibilities previously outside their
purview in order to identify deadbeat dads and jail the recalcitrant.
Such measures do not impress Gershenzon, who believes that “the whole
point is to collect money, and this approach is very expensive.…The idea is to
get cash for kids, not necessarily to put bad guys in jail.
[Putting people in jail] may make you feel better, but it won’t
necessarily help children.”39
case of Timothy Lee Dean perfectly illustrates Gershenzon’s point.
Jailed for failure to pay $50,000 in back child support, Dean incurred
more than $100,000 in legal fees contesting his debt.
He finally ended up penniless, homeless, and almost blind in one eye
because of a jail fight, yet his children received only a few dollars in child
support—far, far less than the state spent prosecuting his case.40
fathers are not alone in fighting against the newly aggressive efforts to
collect child support. Some state
legislators think that fundamental legal doctrines are being skewed in “the
frenzy to boost [child] support payments.”41
Nebraska lawmakers, for instance, have railed against the new Federal
child-support directives—which states must adopt or lose Federal funds—as
“a form of blackmail, a usurpation of states’ rights [which is] downright
offensive.” “This is a blatant attack on the state’s ability to run the
state,” protested the Speaker of Nebraska’s House of Representatives.42 In Kansas, some lawmakers have complained that in its
child-support directives the Federal government has gone “too far in imposing
its will on state governments,” with one legislator calling the Federal plan a
type of “extortion.”43
Federal plan for collecting child support has also alarmed civil libertarians.
To facilitate the collection of child support, Federal officials have
established a national employment registry allowing them to track the job
changes of those who owe child support. Such
a registry worries some observers, who see it opening “unexplored portals to
surveillance” by enabling “the government [to] keep closer tabs on where
everyone is working.” Legal
experts fear that the creation of this registry sets a dangerous precedent,
increasing the likelihood that government will capture other data bases
originally collected for business purposes.
In the opinion of one privacy expert, “It’s the proverbial camel’s
nose under the tent door.”44
if all of their computers work properly, even if Federal and local officials can
cooperate, and even if privacy concerns can be temporarily set aside, the
child-support network makes a poor substitute for the intact family—even by
strictly monetary measures. For in the first place, once a divorce takes place, creating
two households instead of one, there are fewer resources available for parents
or children, regardless of how those resources are divided up.
“Two households,” Minow remarks, “in most circumstances, will be
unable to achieve the standard of living available to the one.”45
No child-support network will ever change this reality.
Furthermore, while married fathers give their financial support directly
to their children, government officials must expend one dollar for every four
collected through their complex and coercive mechanisms.46
Worse Off Overall”
have trumpeted the increases in child support collected by the government in
recent years: the $14.4 billion collected by Federal and state officials in 1998
represents an increase of 80% over the $8 billion collected in 1992.47
But by another measure, government officials are merely running faster on
the social treadmill created by high divorce rates and ever-higher illegitimacy
rates: of children living with single mothers, 31 percent received child support
twenty years ago; the percentage is roughly the same today, despite the dramatic
increase in government efforts to enlarge its child-support system.48
Nor has the increase in government zeal in collecting child support come
without emotional costs for the children and mothers who are supposed to be the
primary beneficiaries, since recent research shows that “paying any child
support increases the incidence of conflict between parents.”49
Because of such research findings, Garfinkel and his colleagues soberly
concede—despite their own advocacy of more vigorous child-support
measures—”stronger enforcement may make children worse off overall.”50
of putting children at risk though yet more costly and politically problematic
child-support strategies, it is finally time for policymakers to reinforce
rather than undermine the social ideal of marriage.
“Without increasing the number of children in two-parent families,”
columnist Ronald Brownstein has recently asserted, “the United States is
unlikely to make the progress it wants at reducing the number of children in
poverty.”51 Morley Glicken, a professor of social work at Cal State San
Bernardino, goes further, suggesting that government leaders ought to “put
some of [the money] spent on the collection of child support into family therapy
and mandated mediation” so that “couples can work their problems out and
Such a reallocation of funds will require that
government leaders again recognize enduring marriage as a social ideal worthy of
their support as the best means of fostering children’s well-being.
This recognition will force a re-evaluation of the no-fault statutes
which have so cheapened the wedding vow. It
may also force a realignment of other government policies—such as the dubious
experiments with gender-role engineering in the schools and in the military and
the systematic dismantling of the family wage in the workplace.
Most of all, recognizing wedlock as a social ideal will compel the
surrender of the dangerous illusion that the bureaucratic machinery of
child-support-collection can somehow obviate the need for the personal virtues
that sustain marriage and family life. Once
we have all surrendered this illusion, then we can—with T.S. Eliot—finally
break out of the spells woven by politicians “dreaming of systems so perfect
no one will need to be good.”53
David Van Biema, “Dunning Deadbeats,” Time, 3 April 1995, p. 49.
Gershenzon quoted in Teresa Moore, “Study Slams State Crackdown on
Deadbeat Parents,” San Francisco Chronicle, 23 March 1995, p. A15.
See Bryce Christensen, ed., When Families Fail…The Social Costs
(Lanham, MD: University Press of America/The Rockford Institute, 1991).
Doughty v. Engler, 122 Kan. 583, 585, 211 p. 619, 620 (1923); see Bryce
Christensen and George Swan, “Double Bind: The Redefinition of American
Fatherhood,” The Family in America, October 1988, p. 5.
Martha Minow, “How Should
We Think About Child Support Obligations?” in Irwin Garfinkel et al., Fathers
Under Fire: The Revolution in Child Support Enforcement (New York: Russell Sage,
Samuel Pufendorf, Of the Law of Nature and Nations (Oxford: L. Lichfield,
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Thomas B. Marvell, “Divorce Rates and the Fault Requirement,” Law and
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Joseph Lee Rodgers, Paul A. Nakonezny, and Robert D. Shull, “Did
No-Fault Divorce Legislation Matter? Definitely
Yes and Sometimes No,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61(1999): 803-809.
Steven L. Varnis, “Broken vows, therapeutic sentiments, legal
sanctions,” Society, Nov.-Dec. 1997, p. 32f.
D. Glenn, “The Recent Trend in Marital Success in the United States,”
Journal of Marriage and the Family 53(1991): 261-270.
E. Bloom, Cecilia Conrad, and Cynthia Miller, “Child Support and Fathers’
Remarriage and Fertility,” in Fathers Under Fire, 146.
J. Weitzman, The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic
Consequences for Women and Children in America (New York: Free Press, 1985): 27.
Matthew S. Cornick, A Practical Guide to Family Law (Minneapolis: West, 1995):
Neely, The Divorce Decision: The Legal and Human Consequences of Ending (New
York: McGraw-Hill, 1984): 17.
“How Should We Think,” p. 307.
quoted in Evan Gahr, “All the fault of no-fault,” Insight on the News, 28
October 1996, p. 41.
Garfinkel et al., Intro., Fathers Under Fire, p. 2.
Sorensen, “A Little Help for Some ‘Deadbeat’ Dads,” The Washington Post,
15 November 1995, p. A25.
Support Collections” [Letters], Los Angeles Times, 18 Oct. 1998, p. M4.
Steve Johnson, “Men rebel against family justice system,” Knight-Ridder
Tribune News Service, 4 March 1996, p304K0269.
quoted in Fred M. Frohock, Abortion: A Case Study in Law and Morals (Westport,
CT: Greenwood, 1983): 78-79.
Case, “The Effects of Stronger Child Support Enforcement on Nonmarital
Fertility,” in Fathers Under Fire, p. 212.
sweet home,” The Economist, 9 September 1995, p. 25f.
from the People,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 23 March 1997, p. 2b.
Paul R. Amato and Joan G. Gilbreth, “Nonresident Fathers and Children’s
Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61(1999):
Carolyn Webster-Stratton, “The Relationship of Marital Support, Conflict, and
Divorce to Parent Perceptions, Behaviors, and Childhood Conduct Problems,”
Journal of Marriage and the Family 51(1989): 417-430.
Thomas L. Hanson, “Does Parental Conflict Explain Why Divorce Is Negatively
Associated with Child Welfare?” Social Forces 77(1999): 1283-1315.
Vobejda, “Nation’s Child Support System Criticized,” Washington Post, 17
July 1997, p. A17.
Clymer, “Child-Support Collection Net Usually Fails,” The New York Times, 17
July 1997, p. A16.
Riccardi and Greg Krikorian, “State’s Child Support Computer Plan
Rejected,” Los Angeles Times, 10 April 1999, p. A1.
Wolf, “Collecting support,” San Diego Union-Tribune, 20 Oct. 1997, p. A1.
Beth Murphy, “Audit sought on support system,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 4
February 1997, p.1.
Melton, “Virginia Falsely Threatens 2,300 In Mistake on Child Support,”
Washington Post, 29 January 1998, p. D7.
Y. Williams, “Problems plague child support system,” Kansas City Star, 3
September 1998, p. 8.
Patricia Orwen, “Deadbeat dads,” Toronto Star, 9 April 1995, p. A1.
quoted in Marlene Cimons, “New Steps Seek to Boost Child Support Collection
Efforts,” Los Angeles Times, 1 January 1999, p. A13.
Bill Callahan, “Deadbeaten,” San Diego Union-Tribune, 20 Oct. 1997, p. A17.
Katie Kerwin, “Child support collections soar,” Denver Rocky Mountain News,
2 December 1996, p. A5.
Robyn Tysver, “Federal Mandate Criticized,” Omega World-Herald, 20 April
Scott, “A fight over deadbeats,” Kansas City Star, 8 January 1998, p. C6.
Purdey, “Eye on Privacy,” Denver Post, 2 March 1997, p. E1.
“How Should We Think,” p. 305.
Varnis, “Broken vows.”
Cimons, “New Steps.”
Elaine Sorensen, “Dead-Broke Dads,” Washington Post, 9 June 1999, p. A25.
Judith A. Seltzer, Sara S. McLanahan, and Thomas L. Hanson, “Will Child
Support Enforcement Increase Father-Child Contact and Parental Conflict After
Separation?” in Fathers Under Fire, p. 181.
et al., Conclusion, Fathers Under Fire, pp. 333-334.
Brownstein, “National Perspective,” Los Angeles Times, 28 June 1999, p. A5.
in “Child Support Collections,” Los Angeles Times, 18 Oct. 1998, p. M4.
Eliot, Choruses from The Rock, VI.