One kind of family is the one in an old greeting-card picture: two parents, one or more kids, all under one roof.
But another kind of family has become more and more common over the last several decades. We tend to call it “single parenting,” but it is really better described as an unmarried mother and father living apart, their children, and the government whose laws regulate their relationship.
That set of laws is the child-support system, and it covers 17 million American children—about a quarter of them. But that system is nearly 40 years old, established during a different economy, and built on an old model where the mother was the caretaker and the father simply brought home the bacon. Today, a group of critics is saying the system needs an update, not only to be fair to adults but to avoid hurting the children whose interests it is supposed to serve.
These critics are particularly focused on the role of fathers, who make up the vast majority of noncustodial parents. Fathers are overwhelmingly the target of the current system’s narrow focus on collection and enforcement. And for middle-class and high-income men, it may make sense to require simply that they pay up or else.
But 29 percent of families in the system have income below the federal poverty line, and many more have great trouble making ends meet. Since the system was first put in place, out-of-wedlock births have become less stigmatized and more common, while devastating wage stagnation has hit male workers. As a result, there are legions of low-income fathers far less able to hold up their end of the deal. They may find themselves unable to pay child support, and yet caught in a system that expects nothing else from them.
“Child support is a remnant of the days when we used to think that dads didn’t matter,” said Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who has spent years researching the ways poor American men cope with unmarried parenting. “With our right hand we’ve pushed these men away; we’ve said, ‘You’re worthless.’ With our left hand we’re picking his pocket....That’s how it feels to him.”
Today, Edin is one of a growing number of academics and policy makers looking at struggling families in the 21st century and concluding that the child-support system needs to do better. They envision a system that would more closely link providing and parenting, and would take a more pragmatic view toward the ability of disenfranchised men to come up with money they simply don’t have, while still benefiting the children the system is designed to serve. What exactly would that look like—and what would it take to make it a reality?
The child-support system as we know it dates to the 1970s. It was originally a bipartisan policy reform, designed primarily to serve a population of parents who were divorced and steadily employed. Divorce meant there had been a marriage in the first place, and that custody agreements had likely been worked out. Steady employment meant the system could garnish wages directly from a parent’s paycheck if necessary.
Today, however, the lives of many low-income parents look dramatically different. Marriage rates among the poor have plummeted, so there often is no divorce to provide a formal structure for parents’ responsibilities. And employment prospects for men with low education are dismal. “We have a 1970s narrative about a 2010s reality,” Edin said.
A central character in that narrative is the “deadbeat dad,” a figure who emerged in American culture in the 1980s. One moment served as a catalyst: In 1986, Bill Moyers interviewed a New Jersey father of six named Timothy McSeed for a CBS report titled “The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America.” McSeed bragged on camera about his “strong sperm,” and cheerfully admitted he didn’t support any of his children financially because “I’m not doing what the government does.” Editorial columnists seized on the shocking interview, and the segment went viral in a time when that meant more than a few easy clicks: Requests for the tape poured into CBS, including an order for all 7,500 schools in the California public school system. CBS News said it was the largest-ever demand for one of its products.
With this cartoonish bogeyman looming over the cultural and political landscape, the child-support system focused on collection and enforcement. Shortly afterward, Congress passed a law forcing states to be stricter about collecting past child-support debts. The approach was bolstered intellectually by a 1979 book by a University of Michigan law professor, “Making Fathers Pay,” which argued that aggressive enforcement measures, including incarceration, could corral deadbeats into complying with child-support orders. In 1996, President Clinton’s welfare reform act again strengthened the government’s enforcement powers against noncustodial parents.
There have always been, and will always be, some fathers who are not interested in fathering, and who would never help out if the law didn’t force them to. But recent research by sociologists and others who work with low-income fathers suggests that is far from typical. For their poignant 2013 book “Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City,” Edin and coauthor Timothy Nelson conducted wide-ranging interviews with 110 low-income fathers in and around Philadelphia over the course of seven years. They found the majority of men were thrilled to become fathers, even though the pregnancies were rarely planned and their romantic relationships and employment situations were often unstable.
Overwhelmingly, Edin and other sociologists have reported, 21st-century fathers do intend to provide for their children. Many of them fail, in the financial sense. But what Edin found, encouragingly, is that with few opportunities to succeed financially, many have crafted new definitions of what exactly it means to be a good father: emotional availability, consistent commitment, and direct fulfillment of their children’s concrete needs and desires. As one father told Edin, “That’s what kept me going in prison, knowing that I had to come out and be there for them.” Although low-income fathers remain much less studied than mothers, other researchers have found similar enthusiasm for parenting. In her 2002 book, “My Baby’s Father: Unmarried Parents and Paternal Responsibility,” Maureen Waller, an associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, interviewed both men and women who agreed that a father’s economic support was necessary but insufficient to qualify him as a good parent.
If forced to choose between child-support payments and buying diapers and winter coats, many fathers will go for the option that looks more like parenting than taxation. That may be particularly true in cases where a mother is on welfare, because then the father’s child-support payment typically goes directly to the state, sometimes with a token amount “passed through” to the mother and child. “Dads talk about that conundrum,” said Ronald Mincy, a professor of social work at Columbia University and coauthor of the forthcoming book “Failing Our Fathers: Confronting the Crisis of Economically Vulnerable Nonresident Fathers.” “They have to choose between meeting the formal order on the one hand and meeting the child’s informal needs.” If they choose the latter, they become “deadbeats” in the eyes of the law.
Yet researchers say that both mothers and fathers tend to prefer informal agreements, all things considered. If their relationship crumbles—trust is often low to begin with—or if the father gets distracted by a new family, informal agreements can disintegrate, so the formal child-support system is a crucial safety net for mothers and children. But it’s also a system that can alienate fathers from their children, sometimes by literally putting them in jail. Even the burden of debt can be enough to drive a wedge: Waller’s ongoing research suggests that men with outstanding child-support debts have less contact and involvement with their children.
Though mothers undoubtedly have benefited from the child-support system, there’s also a case to be made that they are its victims in a way, too. Unlike parents themselves, the formal system assumes that the custodial parent is the only one with real authority. “If we give in to the notion that the mom ‘owns’ the child, if that’s the default position, then the mom is also responsible for the child,” Edin said. “Moms just end up holding the bag for everything, and men are cast out of society. That is a very bad deal for women.”
Over the years, the child support system has improved in one measurable way: enforcement. “The reach of the child-support program, it’s stronger than the IRS in some ways,” said Jessica Pearson, who directs the Center for Policy Research and has been studying child-support policy since the 1980s. The Federal Parent Locator Service draws on national databases to track down noncustodial parents and enforce payments; in fiscal year 2013, state (and tribal) programs collected $32 billion in child support, and the amount distributed has been steadily rising for years.
That’s good news for the families who have received this money. But more than $100 billion in child-support payments are still in arrears, and research suggests that most of that is essentially uncollectible because the fathers simply do not have the money. (About a quarter of that money is owed to the government.)
Would a more enlightened system—one focused less on enforcement, and more on involvement—do a better job of keeping eager fathers involved with their children? If so, it would mean broadening the state’s approach from one that is primarily punitive to one that works with fathers, presuming that most of them want to be good parents.
Some small signs of progress seem to be on the horizon. Last month, the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement began circulating a 41-page list of proposed new regulations to modernize the child-support program. (Child support programs are administered by states, but the federal government influences state policy and how it is implemented.) The new rules would make changes like allowing states to spend federal child-support dollars on employment and training programs for fathers. Crucially, they also encourage states to take into account a man’s basic cost of living before making child-support calculations.
Scholars who work with low-income families all have their own favorite ways they would like to see the system change. Waller mentions limiting retroactive debts and revising policies on how states handle interest payments. Mincy would like to see the Earned Income Tax Credit extended more generously to noncustodial parents. Job training for fathers is another big focus: Small studies in New York and Texas have shown that if the state provides training for men who haven’t been able to pay child support, they are likelier to begin to comply. And almost everyone laments the fact that some states treat incarceration as “voluntary unemployment,” so child-support debts often balloon while men are in prison.
Experts also have ambitious ideas about how the system could help incorporate fathers into the lives of their children. Some would like to connect child-support and visitation agreements for never-married parents, the way that divorce court does. Some jurisdictions have experimented with versions of “coparenting court” to help unmarried parents negotiate a more complex agreement that covers more than just check-writing.
And language matters, too. Edin bemoans the widespread use of the term “single mother,” and the way that many government poverty programs are oriented solely around mothers and children. In fact, mothers who are truly single are vanishingly rare: In one way or another, fathers and boyfriends are almost always integral parts of the picture, and those relationships are assets we would do better to strengthen than ignore. She’d like to see researchers and policy makers adopt another phrase, one she hopes would remind us how many lives are at stake in all these arrangements. The term she prefers: “Complex fragile family.”
Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.
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