Children, like hard cases, can make bad law. The child at risk is a stark, powerful image that strikes deep, even if we have no children ourselves. Government endeavors in pursuit of security and prosperity for children have a decided P.R. advantage.
One type of at-risk child is becoming more and more common in America: the child living with only one parent. Such children are, as Dan Quayle got in trouble for suggesting, more prone to a variety of troubles, from criminal activity to having kids out of wedlock themselves.
Fortunately for those leading a dramatic crusade against this growing trend, there's a villain to blame: the deadbeat dad. Fathers across the United States are abandoning their families and their financial responsibilities in ever-growing numbers, the story goes, and only the government–more and more only the federal government–has the power to stop them.
The government has been trying. But it just might be hitting a dead end. Its attempts to do better seem more and more a quick skid down a faster road to serfdom than even F.A. Hayek envisioned–and some of its efforts seem more inclined toward helping itself than helping children.
The federalization of child support began in 1975, with the passage of Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, which created the federal Child Support Enforcement and Paternity Establishment program. It also required every state to create and manage its own Office of Child Support, for which the federal government would reimburse 66 percent of the expenses. Before that, child support efforts were the states' business, and the problem of children with only one parent was a relatively small one. Back then, the major reason for single-parent families was the death of one parent or, less commonly, divorce.
But despite federal efforts, the problem continued to grow, and a new wrinkle was added: the child who had never lived with his father to begin with. From 1979 to 1990, the number of children living without a father rose from around 7 million to nearly 10 million, and the percentage of those whose mothers had never been married rose from 19 percent to 30 percent. The federal government in 1988 further expanded its reach over child support with the passage of the Family Support Act, which, among other things, required states to use certain mathematical formulas (of the state's own choice) in deciding child support awards, largely eliminating judicial discretion.
The official line is that $21 billion in overdue child support payments is going uncollected. Figures about unpaid child support are not terribly reliable, however, since they are mostly based on unchecked self-reporting by custodial parents. Surveys done in 1991 by a team of researchers from Arizona State University found that even court records about child support often undercount payments, with many absent dads choosing to pay directly to the mother, not through the court. (Fifty-seven percent of child support money in the ASU survey was paid this way.)
Regardless of the actual total, uncollected child support is a problem. Unfortunately, plans in the works to solve it probably won't give children without fathers the sort of help they really need. But those plans do risk unacceptable levels of government control over everyone's lives.
The feds are now expanding their reach over child support further. Parts of this year's proposed omnibus welfare bill would enforce on all the states a Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (already adopted by some states). This act modifies the current system controlling interstate child support cases and simplifies the process by ensuring that only one child support order can exist at any time, regardless of where either custodial or noncustodial parent moves.
The bill would also require license revocation–both drivers and professional licenses–for anyone more than 90 days late with a child support payment (some states have such programs already), and create mandatory federal wage withholding and W-4 tracking. Employers would have to report every new hire to a state data bank, which would check the person against a data bank of those with outstanding child support orders; if such an order existed, the employer would have to withhold money from the person's paycheck and forward that money to a state dispursement office.
Various freshman Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee condemned those aspects of the bill as overly totalitarian–one even used the term "a Nazi program"–and tried to remove them, but they were all added back in in markups and on the floor. Despite these provisions, the idea of making dads pay is so popular that support for the bill is now almost universal. One Hill insider says he wouldn't expect more than five congressmen to publicly vote against the child support provisions if they came up for a vote by themselves. That may happen, since the current welfare package is entangled in election year politics.
A grand example of how the simple acceptance of government responsibility for solving the problems of deadbeat dads can beget a government leviathan is in a 1994 document from the state of Vermont's Office of Child Support on "Recommendations for Improving Child Support in Vermont." Vermont's OCS is kind and understanding–officials acknowledge that inability to pay child support often stems from some sort of substance abuse problem. Thus, "The Office of Child Support is working with the Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs…to develop a model protocol that will 1) identify parents who are not contributing because of substance abuse problems and, 2) allow the Office of Child Support and the Family Court to make appropriate referrals for evaluation and perhaps treatment." Other mental health issues can be taken care of the same way, as they too can hinder one's ability to pay child support.
Of course many deadbeat dads really can't afford to pay–the General Accounting Office in 1992 estimated possibly as many as 66 percent. So Vermont needs to provide training and job opportunities for those dads–and "Family Court judges and magistrates should, in appropriate cases, make participation in work search or educational programs a requirement that will be enforced by the courts."
And since this part of the plan requires a healthy economy in general, the state Department of Economic Development needs to be an integral part of the whole scheme. Also, the privileges the state extends, such as licenses that allow someone to work in a certain profession or drive a car, must be withdrawn from deadbeats. So the state needs a more efficient computer system to crosscheck lists of deadbeats with lists of license holders or applicants. And all employers must report all new hires immediately to a state agency so they can find out if they've just hired a deadbeat from whose paycheck they'll have to withdraw money. And since deadbeats can cross state lines, all of these ideas ought to be implemented in a coordinated way nationwide.
It all makes perfect sense–and it all essentially makes anyone in the grip of the child support system a total ward of the state. It also enmeshes anyone foolish enough to hire that person, and creates apparatuses of surveillance and control that could easily be extended to other purposes less clearly noble than mulcting cash from deadbeat dads.
But it's all for the children, right?
David Blankenhorn, author of the recent book Fatherless America, wonders if our current child support system really is good for kids. "Every year it's the same. 'We're making good progress, and we're going to make even more progress.' It's just more of the same. The average child living without her father is doing worse and worse," Blankenhorn says. "[The child support bureaucracy's] wishful thinking is shown in their constant belief that new administrative procedures will solve the problem. Get bigger computers, get employers to withhold wages, track them down across state lines, some administrative way to sharpen our police procedures will do it. But that hasn't worked."
"The only way to get money," he concludes, "is to have men who believe they want to be fathers. No child support program will work when the demographic trends [of more and more fatherless children] are going in the opposite direction."
Blankenhorn argues at length in his book that merely squeezing cash out of fathers isn't good enough. Fathers are more important than just cash; growing up without a father's presence is worse than growing up without a father's bucks. The pathologies of fatherless children are caused by lack of a father's care, guidance, and image, not just his money. The only solution, a "sober" and "pessimistic" Blankenhorn says, is to reemphasize "the moral responsibility for a man to support his child, to constantly remind them they are doing something shameful and unmanly" if they don't.
Of course, those who are profiting from a crisis might not be too interested in ending it. And as the feds embroil themselves more and more in child support, they've set up financial incentives that allow many state governments to profit from child support money intended for welfare babies.
When child support orders go to parents on Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the money is paid to the state child support office. Only $50 of it is passed on to the mothers–the rest is supposed to help offset the costs to the government of AFDC. This system undermines on-the-record participation by many absent dads, and makes official data on the number of fathers ignoring their families even more suspect.
As interviews with a cross-section of Washington, D.C., welfare mothers for the American Public Welfare Association showed, many mothers find it makes no sense to try to force the father to participate officially in the program. If the father is even slightly cooperative, it's better to cut an under-the-table deal with him that would net mother and child more than $50. "You're just wasting your time in court, filling out the papers, for nothing," one mother griped. "Is it better to get the $50 or for him to provide the clothing?" asked another, who opted for unofficial aid from her child's dad.
With the federal government paying 66 percent of collection costs, plus incentives that amount to 6 percent to 10 percent of all the money the state dragoons from absent dads, many states manage to turn child support collection into a cash cow, generating millions that they can use for any other government function they want. Overall, 1995 figures show state governments made $431 million in profit off of running their state offices of child support. Taxpayers are still overall losers, though; the feds spent $1.3 billion on the program in the same year.
As with many huge, overarching social disasters, no one really knows for sure how big the deadbeat dad problem is, or if the $1.3 billion the federal government spent is really helping. Laurie Casey, a senior policy analyst with the Children's Rights Council, a national advocacy group that pushes joint custody, estimates that as much as 90 percent of the child support currently paid through these programs would be paid even absent all the government muscle. While the specific figure is hard to calculate, House staffers and child support lawyers I talked to said the same: For most fathers with any means to pay, a simple court order (if even that) would suffice to get fair child support payments, and the bureaucracy might be benefiting no one but the bureaucrats. Since the states get paid incentives based on how much they collect, "It gives an incentive for the state to just go after the easy ones, the people who would have paid anyway," says Casey. "It's a disincentive to go after the hard cases."
The image of the callous dad who just doesn't give a damn is the main impetus behind the move for a stronger and harsher government role in the child support process. Certainly, such dads exist. But many fathers feel mistreated themselves by the child support process, particularly its presumption that in most cases the children should stay with the mother. One father embroiled in child support litigation in Michigan says, "I've presented the court with good evidence that my wife has lied, but six months later the kids are still with her. She's made false charges, but I might have to pay her legal fees."
He also has a lament shared by many fathers, as well as some economists, that many states' child support guidelines dictate payments that are unnecessarily large, representing far more than just the marginal cost of the child to the mother's household, and in fact are more like alimony than pure child support.
Despite all the money the federal government is spending and the state governments are making, the child support bureaucracy still isn't running efficiently even on its own terms. A recent GAO report goes on for dozens of pages about the child support bureaucracies' administrative problems, and the insistence that a larger, more intrusive bureaucracy is needed indicates that they aren't bringing the problem under control. Government can almost never admit that some problems are simply intractable in a free society. As long as people continue to choose to have children out of wedlock–the result of social and moral changes the government is powerless to halt, except on the margins through changes in welfare policy–we will continue to have men who father children but do not feel like, or are made not to feel like, fathers.
So long as they don't feel responsible, tinkering with changes in government programs won't make them so. "I could imagine a society in which [current crackdown efforts] would work," says Blankenhorn. "But it would need to be an authoritarian state."