Ruth Graham recently wrote a feature for the Boston Globe shining a light on the many flaws with the modern child-support system.
Graham’s piece traces the history of the modern system and exposes how it is based on stereotypes and outdated notions. Several sociologists and scholars are quoted in the story suggesting possible solutions to update the system to better support children while also incorporating fathers into their lives.
The child-support system covers about a quarter of American children, and can provide a crucial safety net for some families. But it is obvious the current laws need significant restructuring.
Here are four of the most critical flaws of the current child-support system.
The system is outdated.
The child-support system was originally a bipartisan policy reform designed to serve divorced parents who were steadily employed. But the system was established nearly 40 years ago, and is based on outdated stereotypes that viewed Mom as a housewife and Dad as the sole breadwinner.
As Johns Hopkins University sociologist Kathryn Edin explained to Graham, the traditional roles of mothers and fathers have changed dramatically since the 1970s, but the laws are still stuck in the past.
“We have a 1970s narrative about a 2010s reality,” Edin said.
The system makes it particularly tough on low-income fathers.
As Graham points out, 29 percent of families in the system live below the federal poverty line. Many fathers sincerely want to do right by their children, but simply don’t have the means to do so. That becomes a very slippery slope for a lot of dads.
When unpaid child-support payments accumulate, this often snowballs into another issue: parental alienation. Research has shown that men with outstanding child-support debts tend to be less involved in their children’s lives. Some even find themselves incarcerated over unpaid payments.
And since many states treat incarceration as voluntary unemployment, child-support debts continue accumulating while men are in prison. It’s easy to see why this is such a difficult cycle to break.
The “deadbeat dad” myth.
Another stereotype feeding many of the problems with the current child-support laws is that of the deadbeat dad.
In 1986, CBS produced a report titled “The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America,” which featured a New Jersey father of six who bragged on camera about not supporting his children financially. The report sparked outrage across the country and even led to stricter child-support laws.
Not long after the piece ran, Congress passed a law forcing states to adopt stricter enforcement practices when collecting past child-support debts. That trend continued well into the ’90s when President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform act gave government even greater power to enforcement child-support collection against noncustodial parents.
While fathers skipping out on their child-support responsibilities certainly shouldn’t be ignored, current research suggests the “deadbeat dad” is probably more of an outlier than the status quo.
In 2013, Edin coauthored “Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City.” Edin and coauthor Timothy Nelson conducted in-depth interviews with 110 low-income fathers in the Philadelphia area over seven years and discovered the majority of the men were exhilarated to be fathers, even when the pregnancies were unplanned. Even when faced with difficult financial situations, many fathers tried to find other ways to provide emotional support for their children.
Edin’s study goes hand-in-hand with other recent research that suggests economic support, although necessary, is hardly enough to qualify one as a good parent.
The current system fixates on enforcement and ignores involvement.
The core of the problem with modern child-support laws is that there is too much emphasis on enforcement and not enough focus on getting fathers involved in their children’s lives.
The Federal Parent Locator Service uses a national database to track down noncustodial parents to enforce payments. In 2013, $32 billion of child support was collected and that number has been steadily rising over the years.
While the government is very efficient with its enforcement of child-support laws, it might be more beneficial to address its child custody statutes.
The National Parents Organization recently released its Shared Parenting Report Card, which graded every state on its child custody statutes and how well they promote shared parenting following divorce or separation. Nearly across the board, states scored with a cumulative 1.63 grade point average (on a 4.0 scale).
There is no shortage of evidence showing that shared parenting helps offset the negative effects of divorce. While it is important for them to receive adequate financial support, it is arguably even more essential to have quality time with both Mom and Dad.