One of the fatal flaws of the child support system is that it takes a collect-at-all-costs approach to gathering payments from the payor. It’s essentially, “pay or else,” which causes catastrophic problems for families if a parent ever falls behind on payments.
Say a father unexpectedly loses his job and fails to modify his child support order (because knowing when and how to modify support is so confusing that many parents fail to do it even when their financial circumstances change). It doesn’t take long at all for arrears to accumulate and suddenly the father is stuck in a never-ending cycle of debt that can put him in contempt of court and even lead to prison time in extreme cases.
The system is set up under the assumption that there must be a whole lot of dads out there who are fully capable of making payments and simply refuse to do so because they don’t care. While there are certainly fathers who fit that description, the facts seem to indicate that the stereotypical “deadbeat dad” is much more myth than reality.
Deadbeat dad origins
The deadbeat dad label originates from a 1986 CBS report titled, “The Vanishing Family: The Crisis in Black America.” The story profiled a man named Timothy McSeed, who bragged on camera about having six children who he refused to support financially.
This disgusting anecdotal story spread to news outlets nationwide and soon the image of an arrogant dad living his life irresponsibly while the mother struggled to make ends meet was etched into the nation’s psyche.
Certainly efforts should be made to support single mothers, but to make gross generalizations, and even pass legislation cracking down on so-called deadbeats, based on one example is horribly misguided. Especially after you consider what actual data suggests about single dads.
Myth vs. Reality
Calling all dads who miss child support payments deadbeats is not only inaccurate, it’s irresponsible. According to a U.S. General Accounting Office Report, 66 percent of all child support not paid by fathers is due to an inability to come up with the money.
Sadly, when child support payments are missed, it is common for the other parent to refuse to grant the other their parenting time, even though child support and child custody are separate issues. In these cases, you end up with a dad who can’t make his child support payments and doesn’t see his kids and it is suddenly easy to believe the stereotype that he must not care very much.
“I know most of these men are not bad people; they love their kids, they want what is best for their kids, they want to be there for their kids,” Mr. Cordell said.
The research supports Mr. Cordell’s opinion. According to a study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, many of the most economically disadvantaged fathers still did what they could to contribute in-kind support such as baby products, clothing, food, and other non-monetary contributions.
The deadbeat dad myth is just one of many gender stereotypes that pervade the family court system. These stereotypes paint with too broad of a brush and have real consequences that are harmful to families.
Rather than making assumptions based on anecdotal evidence, lawmakers and judges could more effectively serve families by paying attention to what data actually says about low-income dads struggling to make their payments and working with them to find ways to provide financial support while remaining active and engaged fathers.
If you are a father who despite your best efforts is falling behind on child support, you should contact a family law attorney in your area to see if a modification is possible or if anything else can be done to provide relief.