A comment left on my Red vs. Blue: Myth vs. Reality entry a couple weeks ago got me thinking. Our child support laws and procedures need a major overhaul. They are not working very well.
Scofflaws aside, pretty much all of us would agree that those who choose to have sex that results in a birth should pay for the child’s expenses until their child reaches adulthood. Unfortunately, as the commenter pointed out, things in the child rearing business are rarely simple. It is as easy for a woman to get pregnant through a one-night stand with a man whose name she might not even know as it is to become pregnant by her husband. For some men, thirty seconds between a woman’s thighs may be all it takes to cause another human being to come into existence. In some cases (gang rapes come to mind) it may be impossible to identify the father.
It is very clear that a child should do better on two parents’ income than on one. No question about it: in these United States, it takes a heap of money to raise a child to be a productive member of society. I have one daughter, now age 16. For most of her life, I have been tracking her expenses. Anything I spend on her directly goes into a “Childcare” category in Quicken. To date the total of her expenses is about $50,000. This does not include a variety of investments for her college education. By the time college is finally behind her, the total of her expenses is likely to exceed $150,000. Moreover, these are just the direct costs. I did not include food, shelter, movies, transportation and hosts of other miscellaneous costs.
Luckily, my wife and I are solidly in the upper middle class. I am not sure how I would have provided for her if, say, I had been a minimum wage worker trying to eke out a living working at a Wal-Mart. The current minimum wage of $5.15 an hour is clearly far below the poverty line. (For reasons wholly ideological, Congress does not seem inclined to increase it.) Mere subsistence, let alone child support payments, is problematical for parents earning these wages. The situation is likely not much better at $10 or $15 an hour.
Undoubtedly, there are enormous numbers of deadbeat dads out there. (Likely, there are deadbeat moms too, but they are probably the exception.) Some, like my wife’s father, simply disappeared after the divorce. He never sent my mother in law any child support payments. She effectively raised my wife by herself, which was daunting since she scraped by from one poorly paid job to the next. My wife’s childhood was full of the unwelcome memories of moving frequently from one rented place to another.
Had there been regular child support coming in then her situation should have been quite different. It is hard to say how it would be different, but it is likely she would have had more continuity in her life. She might have had access to some of enriching experiences that were beyond their means, like piano lessons. Fortunately, her mother was resourceful and made the best of a bad situation. She should have done much worse than she did. Needless to say her mother had no money saved for her to go to college. While she was bright enough to get a college scholarship, she never learned the discipline needed to succeed in a real collegiate environment. I am proud to say that she eventually succeeded, just many years later. She was a working adult and mother when, at age 39, she proudly received her bachelor’s degree.
The government does recognize the seriousness of the problem. In my last job, I worked tangentially with the Office of Child Support Enforcement, part of the U.S. Administration for Children and Families. OCSE had the job to assist the states with tracking down deadbeat parents. By comparing withholding forms submitted by employers with the social security database there was the expectation that the government could find these people and get them to pay up.
Despite this, for a scofflaw parent, the odds are only one in five (in 1996) that they will be tracked down and pony up the money. If they are tracked down, it is easy enough for the deadbeat parent move to another state. A national ID card would certainly help, but the idea is anathema to many civil libertarians. Even a national ID card is no guarantee, as many jobs (such as day laborers) pay cash wages.
Fortunately, there are still social programs out there that provide basic aid to needy children. However, since welfare reform became law, assistance has become limited in both amount and duration. The CHIPS program helps children who get the health care that they need. All this government aid, while helpful, still does not address the larger needs of children. Subsidized housing is difficult to acquire and seems to be something that Republicans want to abolish. Day care costs shouldered by working mothers make it difficult for them to also pay the rent, let alone put food on their tables. Our assumption is that working mothers, with some temporary help, will develop the wherewithal to provide for their children. The burden is on them to pressure child support enforcement agencies to find deadbeat fathers.
What more can be done? While everyone seems to want taxes to be as low as possible, I do not think it should be at the expense of our children. If deadbeat parents cannot be found or cannot pay child support, then the government needs to step in and make the payments in lieu of the deadbeat parent. That is not to say that the deadbeat parent should get off the hook. It does mean that no child should be put at a financial disadvantage because of an absentee parent. The government should keep ledger under the deadbeat parent’s name for these payments. The government, when it finds these absentee parents, should press for the collection of back due child support. Tax refunds are already garnished for child support, and wages are garnished too if the parent can be identified. However, other sources of income for the deadbeat parent should also be fair game.
Of course, you cannot get blood out of a stone. If the father simply does not have the money to pay his child support, then the amount may need to eventually be excused. Another possibility is that the government should weigh the costs of helping the parent acquire better paying job skills. If the deadbeat parents had better job skills, perhaps the child support payments could eventually be collected.
Mothers also need to understand that they too bear responsibility. While most assume the parenting duties, which are quite burdensome, they also have a responsibility to behave responsibly in their sex lives. It may sound impractical, but they should have the names and address of anyone they have sex with, not just in case of pregnancy, but in case they contract a sexually transmitted disease. Women who habitually do not do these things must understand the consequences. Perhaps they should be required to use Norplant birth control until they are legally married, or can prove they can financially take care of an additional child.
The bottom line is that the child must be financially insulated from the reality of a deadbeat parent. Society needs to rewrite its rules so that the needs of the child come first. We owe our children nothing less.