The deadbeat dad is the reigning villain of our contemporary fatherhood script. His visage, framed by a "Wanted" poster, makes the cover of Newsweek: "Deadbeat Dads: Wanted for Failure to Pay Child Support." At the Child Guidance Center in Akron, Ohio, a little girl writes this imaginary letter to her dad: "Dear Dad, I wish you the worst Father's Day ever. And if you don't pay, you don't get love. Oh yeah, by the way, my mom makes less money than you.... I hate you."
No other family behavior, and no other family-policy issue, has generated such an urgent social consensus on what is to be done. Extracting payments from deadbeat dads is now a regnant priority in our society, uniting liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, elite opinion and popular sentiment. In the 1992 presidential campaign, applause lines about deadbeat dads emerged in the stump speeches of both George Bush and Bill Clinton, reflecting perhaps the only issue in the campaign on which they publicly agreed.
The deadbeat dad is also increasingly visible in popular culture. He is the subject of books, magazine features, and made-for-TV movies. Even the National Enquirer, ever alert to its social responsibilities, has launched a deadbeat-dad series – "Help find the cruel louse who deserted his four children" – which enlists the participation of readers in "hunting down and capturing some of the most wanted deadbeat dads in America."
We demonize the deadbeat dad in part because he reminds us of our fatherlessness. He represents loss. He forces us to reduce our expectations. We vilify him, we threaten him, we demand that he pay, largely because he so clearly embodies the contemporary collapse of fatherhood. Yet the content of our demand illustrates the depth of our pessimism. We do not ask this guy to be a father. That would be utopian, impossible. We ask him to send a check. Instead of demanding what is owed, we demand money.
The main social imperative, as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D., N.Y.) succinctly puts it, is to "make the daddies pay." In July 1993, the Census Bureau reported a 60 per cent increase in out-of-wedlock childbearing since 1982. To the New York Times editorial board, the deeper meaning of this trend was clear: "As the number of unwed mothers grows, so does the number of deadbeat dads." Accordingly, our society's principal response to unwed childbearing must be "a more vigorous effort to track down fathers who refuse to pay support."
If we cannot enforce good fatherhood, the argument goes, we ought to enforce child-support payments. Besides, for children, money is the bottom line. Testifying before the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, Andrew J. Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University concludes that "the major problem the children have in a single-parent family is not the lack of a male image, but rather the lack of a male income."
This way of thinking muddles the issue. First, Cherlin imagines that, in the home, "a male income" and "a male image" are two separate things. Fundamentally, they are not. Consequently, his preference for the former over the latter is all but meaningless. But let us imagine, with Cherlin, that the two could be separated. He still gets the issue backward. The "major problem" in fatherless homes is not "the lack of a male income" (though that certainly is a problem). The major problem is "the lack of a male image" – that is, the lack of a father. To pretend otherwise is simply to pretend that money is important, but fathers are not.
Ultimately, the solution to the growing problem or deadbeat dads is not jail cells, "Most Wanted" posters, job-training programs, interstate computer networks, or IRS agents. At best, these are Band-Aids on an infected wound. At worst, they are a form of denial – a self-defeating strategy intended to excuse our drift toward fatherlessness. The only solution to the problem of deadbeat dads is fatherhood.
How Child Support Was Federalized
Prior to the 1970s, requiring and enforcing child-support payments from absent fathers was almost exclusively a local matter. Caseloads were much smaller than they are today, and most of the instances involved divorce or paternal abandonment. Operating under broad guidelines set by state law, local judges typically exercised considerable authority in awarding payments and monitoring compliance.
By the early 1970s, however, an emerging demographic trend was beginning to command the attention of federal policy-makers. The initial sign was the rapid growth of federal welfare expenditures, especially under Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AJFDC), the Federal Government's major assistance program for poor mothers and their children. AJFDC was enacted in 1935 primarily to aid widows and orphans, but by the 1970s mothers receiving welfare were much less likely to be widows and much more likely to be divorced, and more likely still never to have been married.
With remarkable speed and little debate, the government's basic social contract had been redefined by the new demographics of fatherlessness. The Federal Government was no longer primarily aiding the mothers of children whose fathers had died. Now the government .was primarily aiding the mothers of children whose fathers had left them. Moreover, what was true of the AJFDC caseload was also true of the larger society. These fathers were not dead. They were just gone. And with each passing year, more of them were gone.
The explosion of father absence in the 1960s and 1970s was essentially voluntary – the result not of acts of God or of fate but of human decisions. Between 1960 and 1980, the proportion of children in the United States living in fatherless homes nearly doubled, from 17.5 per cent to 32.2 per cent. During this same period, the proportion of these children whose mothers were widows dropped sharply, while the proportion whose mothers were divorced or never married rose dramatically. The trend was especially pronounced among African Americans. According to the scholars William Julius Wilson and Kathryn N. Neckerman, the "number of black children growing up in fatherless families increased by 41 per cent between 1970 and 1980, and most of this growth occurred in families in which the mother had never been married."
Policy-makers thus confronted a simultaneous growth and transformation of fatherlessness. Recognition of these trends led directly to the creation during the 1970s and 19S0s of a large federal and state bureaucracy devoted to enforcing private child-support payments from absent fathers. No longer would child-support issues remain local, while the Federal Government assisted widows and orphans. Now these two domains of public concern had become inextricably linked.
Congress began to federalize the issue of child support in 1975 by passing the Child Support Enforcement Amendments and establishing a federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. In 1979, the Census Bureau first began to collect national data on child-support payments. In the early 1980s, the phrase "deadbeat dad" began to appear in the media. By the late 19S0s, it had become a staple of our cultural and public-policy discourse on fatherhood.
Over this period, the federal-state child-support bureaucracy grew rapidly, employing about 230 officials on the federal level and 38,000 on the state level by 1992. In recent years, virtually all states have launched efforts to identify absent fathers and to collect more child- support payments. In 1990, state spending on these efforts totaled about $1.6 billion. These massive and expanding programs constitute our society's central response – indeed, virtually our only response – to the rapid rise of volitional father absence.
Let us examine the results of this approach/comparing data from 1978-79, shortly after Congress began to federalize child-support enforcement, with data from 1989-90, the most recent years for which numbers are available. Analysis of these data yields three basic conclusions:
In only 11 years, the problem grew much larger and more intractable. In 1990, fathers were absent from 27.5 per cent of all homes inhabited by mothers and children, up from 21.6 per cent in 1979. Approximately 10 million families in 1990 consisted of mothers living with children whose fathers were absent.
Apart from the overall increase in fatherlessness, the underlying demographics shifted dramatically during these years. As a proportion of all fatherless homes, three of the four categories of father absence – divorce, remarriage, and separation – declined. But fatherlessness due to nonmarriage skyrocketed. Unwed parenthood accounted for 19 per cent of all fatherless homes in 1979. Eleven years later, it accounted for 30 per cent. Unwed parenthood has become by far the nation's fastest-growing family trend.
There are no signs that the trend is slowing down. Indeed, the most recent data from the Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics suggest quite the opposite. By 1992, nonmarital childbearing had reached virtual parity with divorce as a cause of female-headed homes. Before the end of the decade, if current trends continue, unwed parenthood will become the nation's principal cause of fatherlessness.
The New Deadbeat Dad
This demographic shift profoundly alters the meaning of "deadbeat dad" as a cultural category. Close your eyes and picture a deadbeat dad, circa 1960 or even 1970. The image that will probably come to mind is one of a married man who has deserted his wife and children, a guy who has broken his promise, run away from his responsibilities. He has moved out of the house he once lived in, the house where his wife and children still live.
Now picture a deadbeat dad, circa 1995. He may have once lived with the mother and child. Or maybe not. Maybe he never had to move out because he never moved in. Maybe he was just around, nearby. Maybe he had, or hoped to have, a serious relationship with the mother. Or maybe not. Maybe the mother included him in her thinking about conceiving and bearing a child. Or maybe not. Maybe he never even learned about the child. Maybe the mother still wishes he would come around, spend time in the home, try to be a father to the child. Or maybe not. This guy may be the last person on earth she would want to see, or would want her child to see. In any case, there have never been any chains on this guy. Nothing formal, nothing legal. Nothing to tie him down. No promises, no piece of paper, no big commitments.
Except one. Every month for at least the next 18 years, we tell him, he is supposed to send a child-support check to the mother. If he does not, he is a deadbeat dad. He is a criminal. We need to track him down. Make him pay.
Our current cultural script wants it both ways. On the one hand, as the family scholar Frank Mott puts it, fathers are "not that important." For children and for society, fatherhood is nonessential. Consequently, we should not be alarmed as increasing numbers of women want children but not husbands. Or as increasing numbers of men father children without any intent to live with them, to raise them, to marry the mothers.
On the other hand, there is a fixed ethical and legal rule: the minimum requirement for every biological father in the U.S. is 18 years of regular child-support payments. Do anything else you want. Don't get married if you don't want to. The only rule is that you have to make those payments. We do not care about the "male image." But we are serious about the "male income"
To put it mildly, the two sides of this story are incompatible. To put it a bit more sharply, the entire story is morally unserious. Half of it is based on denial. (Fathers are not that important.) The other half is based on wishful thinking. (Make the fathers pay.)
We should make up our minds. If we expect men to be fathers, we should start telling them so. If we do not, we should admit it and stop kidding ourselves. For there is no such thing as the male income that can be systematically detached from the male image – some shard of fatherhood called child support that we can preserve, like a tiny dried flower, while we consciously throw the rest of fatherhood away.
Not surprisingly, child-support payments from absent fathers to never-married mothers are, in practical terms, insignificant. For example, while 77 per cent of divorced mothers in 1989 were awarded child-support payments, only 24 per cent of never-married mothers received an award. And among the minority of never-married mothers who actually received any payment in 1989, the mean payment per mother was only $1,88S – far lower than the payment received by any other group of eligible mothers.
Payments from never-married fathers are negligible because they derive from a negligible foundation of fatherhood. Ultimately, despite our cultural script's insistence on strategies of coercion and vilification, meaningful child-support payments will come only from men who see themselves as fathers. In short, the more fatherhood, the more money. But the current trend in today's growing pool of absent fathers is exactly the opposite: less fatherhood, less money. The new-style absent fathers of the 1990s are much less likely to pay child support precisely because they are much less likely even to attempt to act as fathers toward their children.
According to Census Bureau data, about 78 per cent of all absent fathers in 1990 who had visitation privileges were also obliged to meet specific child-support payment schedules. On the other hand, while 67 per cent of divorced fathers had visitation privileges in 1990, only 33 per cent of the new-style absent fathers – those who had never married the mother – had visitation privileges, and about 73 per cent of those did not visit their children even once during 1989.
Many of these men do not consider themselves to be deadbeat dads at all. Their reasoning may be sad, but at least it is consistent. They do not think of themselves as deadbeats precisely because they do not think of themselves as dads. They never signed on to anything. They never agreed to play by any fatherhood code. They have never had any explicit obligations either to their children or to the mothers of their children. By what reasonable principle do they owe anybody anything?
Furthermore, the mothers of their children increasingly affirm this view of fatherhood. Many of the mothers simply do not want these guys around. And if the price tag for this peace of mind is, say, $1,888 in forgone child-support payments, so be it. Compared to divorced mothers, never-married mothers, when asked by the Census Bureau why they receive no child-support payments, are more likely to say "did not pursue an award" or "did not want an award." Why bother? For these mothers, the father did not leave. He was never there in the first place.
The second conclusion: Since 1978, a continually intensifying national campaign against deadbeat dads has failed to produce any net improvement in the economic well-being of the typical fatherless child. The notion that we are successfully cracking down on deadbeat dads may be the single most widely shared and celebrated idea in today's family-policy debate. The idea suffers from one flaw: it is not true.
Repeated claims of progress by public officials and the press are based largely on a statistical illusion, unrelated to the economic well-being of specific children. The illusion has two components. First, as the problem grows, the total caseload increases. As a result, the total number of dollars collected can increase substantially without producing any.increase at all in the dollars collected per child. Second, and more important, child-support cases are now less and less likely to be handled by local courts and more likely to be handled by state and federal bureaucracies. As with the expansion of the caseload, this transfer means that state and federal agencies can collect "more" child support without producing any real gains for the typical child.
In 1989, after 11 years of intensive efforts to improve collections, per-child payments from absent fathers were virtually unchanged from those in 1978. The proportion of single mothers who were supposed to-receive payments – as well as the proportion who actually received payments – was basically the same in 1989 as it had been 11 years earlier. Similarly, the mean payments received by all women who were supposed to receive money remained essentially stagnant during this period. In fact, among mothers who received support, mean payments per mother actually declined slightly in real terms from 1978 to 1989. Mean payments per mother with at least four children declined sharply..
Not only did payments received decline, but so did payments due. In 1978, the mean payment owed per mother was $3,680. By 19S9, it had dropped to $3,293. Indeed, the reason for the improvement in the total child-support collection rate during this period – from 64.3 per cent in 1978 to 68.7 per cent in 1989 – is not a happy one. The collection rate improved only because mean payments due decreased more rapidly than mean payments received.
Over all, here is the best that can be said about our child-support enforcement program from 1978 to 1989: our continually escalating efforts kept us roughly even with the continually escalating problem. In other words, our best exertions were enough to keep things from getting much worse, much faster – faint praise, indeed, for a gamble on which we have bet the entire farm.
The third conclusion: Even when awarded and paid, child support typically reflects the loss rather than the continuation of a father's economic provision. In 1989, among the minority of mothers living with fatherless children who were supposed to receive child-support payments, the mean payment received was $2,252. Similarly, among all mothers who actually received payments, the mean payment was $2,995. Among divorced mothers who received payments, the mean payment was $3,322. To simplify, call it $3,000 in child support per participating family. According to quite conservative estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the direct annual expenditures on a single 3-to-5-year-old child in a two-parent, middle-income family during 1990 totaled approximately $8,000; for two children under age 17, expenditures totaled about $14,000; and for three children, about $17,000.
The $30,000 Father v. the $3,000 Father
IN 1990, the median income for married couples with at least one child under 18 was $41,260. For female-headed households with at least one child, the median income was $13,092. To simplify, let us say that a man working full time in 1990 earned about $30,000 and a woman working full time earned about $20,000.
Thus a married father in 1990 typically contributed about $30,000 to the family fund. But this $30,000 father is not simply doling out carefully circumscribed payments. He is helping to create a home for his family. He is not just a contributor. He is a participant. There is no "them." There is just "us." The house he lives in also houses the other members of the family. The food he puts in the refrigerator, the Christmas tree he decorates, the TV he watches, the car he drives, the insurance he buys, the vacation he plans for – all these ways of spending that $30,000 contribute to the well-being of his wife and children.
If he gets a raise at work, some of the extra money may be frittered away in poker games, but typically most of it will go directly, without any court order requiring it, toward improving the economic well-being of the entire family. If a sudden crisis strikes – for example, if a child, becomes seriously ill – as much of the $30,000 as possible is likely to be mobilized in response to the crisis.
Moreover, the $30,000 father typically does not stop contributing to the family fund at some specified moment. In most states, child-support payments usually stop when children reach the age of 18. But the $30,000 father is quite likely to help pay for college educations for his over-18 children. Just as likely, he will help his over-18 children purchase a first used car or rent a first apartment. Perhaps his children will continue to live in the home after age 18, or return after being on their own for a while, in the aftermath of a lost job or an ended marriage. In all these instances, the father's contributions are likely to continue.
Compare this $30,000 father to a reformed deadbeat dad, a guy who now regularly sends his child-support payments. His $3,000 represents about 10 per cent of the median male wage and slightly less than 40 per cent of the estimated direct annual costs of raising a single 3-to-5-year-old child. If there are two children, the $3,000 represents about 20 per cent of direct yearly costs.
So even if the absent father pays his $3,000 in child support, the single mother must still come up with about $5,000, or more than 60 per cent of all direct expenses, for her one young child. If she has two children, she must provide $11,000, or almost 80 per cent of all direct expenses. If she cannot afford to do so – recall that the 1990 median family income for female-headed households was $13,000 – she must do what millions of mothers in her position do. She and her children must make do with less, leaving the broad middle class and accepting the reality of economic vulnerability.
For the $30,000 father, the child-support ceiling – the most he can be expected to contribute – is somewhere near $30,000. For the $3,000 father, the very structure of his situation means that his child-support ceiling is exactly $3,000. If he marries another woman and has new children to support – or if he moves to a different state, or loses his job, or gets sick, or perhaps simply takes up an expensive hobby – he will be inclined to seek to pay less, not more. He is no longer a participant. He is a funder, a taxpayer. More importantly, even if he never misses a payment, the $3,000 in child support does not even begin to match the value of the economic provision of the typical married father.
Choosing a Strategy
What is the best strategy for reducing the number of deadbeat dads? One approach is to do more of the same. Get tough. If that fails, get tougher. Pass stricter laws. Crack down harder. This strategy enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support in "Washington, in state legislatures, among policy analysts, and among opinion leaders in the media.
Maybe it will work. If all goes well, perhaps the mean child-support payment could reach, say, $4,000 a year by the end of the decade. But don't count on it. So far, the problem has continued to grow faster than any of our efforts to solve it. With each passing year, more and more children do not live with their fathers, just as more and more men father children without feeling even the slightest sense of paternal obligation. There is little evidence that new and improved collection techniques will do much to reverse, or even keep pace with, this basic demographic trend. Another approach is to recognize reality and figure out a better, more workable way to support children. Two of the nation's leading scholars in this area have come quite close to recommending this strategy.
In 1979, just as the nation was beginning to federalize the problem of child support, David L. Chambers published Making Fathers Pay, an influential analysis of child-support enforcement procedures. Chambers argues against using the threat of jail as a primary means of enforcing child-support orders, urging wage withholding instead. But ultimately, he suggests, no enforcement strategy can counteract the steady decomposition of fatherhood. In the future, Chambers speculates, long-term child support from an absent father may become "an anachronism." Even in cases of divorce, he reasons, the best option might be to require child support from the father 'Tor only a few years after separation," after which time he "would have no enforceable rights in or duties to the child."
In 1992, just as the nation was completing the federalization of the child-support problem, Irwin Garfinkel published Assessing Child Support. Garfinkel urges us to try to collect more and larger payments from absent fathers. But like Chambers, he is a realist. Accordingly, he recommends that the government pay child support whenever fathers fail to do so. The appeal of this idea is clear. Unlike our current approach, a federal assurance of child support would guarantee the delivery of more money to fatherless children and their mothers.
The drawback is equally clear. Garfinkel's proposal would shift responsibility from fathers to the state, effectively subsidizing fatherlessness. As a result, millions of mothers would come to rely on government, not on fathers, for help in raising their children. Providing for a child would become less the specific responsibility of one father than the general responsibility of society.
Sure, both of these scholars tell us, try hard. Be tough. But be realistic. A lot of these guys will never pay. Therefore, we must make other plans. From different vantage points, both urge us to abandon our exclusive reliance on a "get tougher" approach to child support. But consider for a moment a third idea – essentially absent from today's debate but worth pondering. That idea is fatherhood. What if this issue is not really about court orders or police procedures at all, but about the meaning of manhood in our society? What if child support finally has almost nothing to do with the male income and almost everything to do with the male image?
Perhaps, as Chambers and Garfinkel suggest, it is ultimately futile for society to insist on obtaining payments from this new sort-of father, the $3,000-a-year father who does not live with his children. But instead of lowering standards, what if we raised them? What if we insisted on more of the real thing: the $30,000-a-year father who lives with his children? What if the whole idea of "child support," understood as a viable and enforceable way of life for millions of detached men, turns out to be largely a mirage? What if there is simply no sustainable halfway house between fatherhood and fatherlessness? What if we have only two choices?
This article originally appeared here.