One clause in the budget President Bush submitted to Congress last week has unexpectedly brought attention to the plight of "dead-broke dads."
Under the president's proposal, child support payments by noncustodial fathers whose children are on welfare will go directly to the family rather than to a government bureaucracy. The idea is that such an arrangement will allow fathers a more direct role in their children's lives and give them more of an incentive to stay involved.
This initiative, which has bipartisan support, has also given rise to a much-needed discussion of the problems faced by poor fathers, who often struggle with onerous child support payments that make it virtually impossible for them to stay afloat. It's an issue that fathers' rights activists have been trying to raise for some time, only to face accusations of making excuses for men who want to evade their responsibilities.
In a society sensitive to stereotypes, few groups have as bad an image as the divorced or unmarried father. He is "Daddy Meanest"—a title the media gave to Jeffrey Nichols, the investment banker who was said to be living in luxury with his new wife while owing $600,000 to his three children.
The idea that divorced men make out like bandits, leaving women and children in the dust, owes much to Lenore Weitzman's 1985 book "The Divorce Revolution." With her sound-bite conclusion (based on a 1977 study) that the standard of living drops 73 percent for women after divorce and rises 42 percent for men, Weitzman became one of America's most quoted.
Some scholars questioned these numbers from the start. In 1996, after another scholar reanalyzed Weitzman's data and found a huge error in her computations, she admitted the mistake (blaming a computer foul-up). The revised data yielded a 10 percent increase in living standards for men and a 27 percent decline for women in Weitzman's sample. But that was in 1977; since then, women's earnings have risen and child support collections have improved.
There is also the issue of tax-code provisions which heavily favor the custodial parent. In his 1999 book "Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths," Arizona State University researcher Sanford Braver reports the result of an extensive study which found that among typical divorced couples with two children, both parents suffer a slight decline in their living standards.
The cliches of "The Divorce Revolution" have largely driven our policies toward noncustodial fathers since the mid-1980s. Yet the deadbeat dad story has another side. In a 1996 article in the Christian Science Monitor, an official at the district attorney's office in Oklahoma City wrote that he had "prosecuted one deadbeat dad who had been hospitalized for malnutrition and another who lived in the bed of a pickup truck."
One study found that among fathers with no employment problems in the past year, 5 percent paid nothing and 81 percent paid in full; among those who worked in seasonal jobs or had been unemployed, 45 percent paid in full and over a third paid nothing. The men on the deadbeat dads most wanted lists are not businessmen or brain surgeons but primarily unskilled laborers.
Of course, men who father children they can't support are irresponsible—as are the women who have those children. But no conservative has ever bashed welfare moms as viciously as conservatives and liberals bash "deadbeat dads." Most welfare opponents stress that women on public assistance want to be self-sufficient but are trapped by a bad system; "deadbeat dad" rhetoric nearly always assumes that the men wilfully refuse to support their children. And, while everyone recognizes that women who fall on hard times need help, a man who owes child support may not find much sympathy when he loses a job.
Urban Institute scholar Elaine Sorensen has reported that only 4 percent of fathers are able to get their child support payments reduced when their earnings drop by more than 15 percent. Judges tend to proceed on the assumption that the man's income will eventually get back to its former level. Even if a reduction is granted, it takes as long as six months—while arrearages mount. This is an especially important issue now that we are in the middle of a recession.
In recent years, we have started to recognize that fathers are parents too. This means that fathers, like mothers, have the obligation to raise and support their children. It also means that fathers, like mothers, deserve compassion and support when they make a good-faith effort.