A question that has appeared in recent years, largely as a result of the increases in divorce and nonmarital child bearing, is the question of whether child support enforcement leads to an increase in deadbeat parents. Over the last few decades, the United States has witnessed an increase in the number of parents, mainly fathers, who are not taking responsibility for their children. Many of these parents have come to public attention through the child support system. The child support system is fundamentally an economic phenomenon run by the various states with federal oversight and guidelines. Historically, its focus was on either recovering welfare money for the government or on preventing the government from having to expend money on single mothers and their children. However, in recent years, the focus has expanded to include ensuring the health and well-being of the nation’s children. Along with this expanded focus has come an increase in the strict enforcement of child support obligations. Consequently, some parents who fail to comply with their child support obligations, for whatever reason, are at risk for fines and imprisonment and are labeled deadbeat parents. In fact, the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act makes it a federal offense for a noncustodial parent to willfully fail to pay past-due support obligations for a child residing in another state.
Referring to these parents as deadbeats has spawned great debate regarding how child support is conducted in the United States. On one side of the debate are child advocates who suggest that we need to be more aggressive with child support policies in an effort to reduce childhood poverty. On the other side are fathers’ rights activists who argue that the current child support system is unjust in that it favors women in most actions that pertain to the child, leaving fathers out.
I. Child Support
II. The Transformation of Child Support in the United States
A. Child Support in Colonial America
B. Child Support Enforcement and the Making of the Deadbeat Dad
III. Child Advocates
IV. Fathers’ Rights Activists
Child support is the transfer of resources to a child living apart from a parent. The most common type of transfer is direct financial payment to the custodial parent on behalf of the child. However, child support can be indirect in the form of medical insurance and care, dental care, child care, or educational support.
The transfer of resources occurs at both the private and public level. Private child support is paid by the noncustodial parent to the custodial parent. The majority of custodial parents have some type of agreement or court award to receive financial and nonfinancial support from the noncustodial parent for their children. In most cases, these are legal agreements established by a court or other governmental entity, such as the local child support agency. Although the majority of custodial parents have legal agreements for child support, about 40 percent of custodial parents do not have such agreements or have informal agreements with the noncustodial parent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the three most-often cited reasons for the lack of child support agreements are: (1) custodial parents did not feel the need to go court or to get legal agreements; (2) the other parent provided what he or she could for support; and (3) the other parent could not afford to pay child support.
On the other hand, public child support is paid for by the state on behalf of a child living in poverty in the form of public assistance, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF); food stamps; Medicaid; or Women, Infants, and Children. Roughly, about one-third of all custodial parents receive some form of child support– related assistance from the state. Historically, child support was a means for the state to receive reimbursement from noncustodial fathers for public child support expenditures. In the case of public child support, it is the government and not the custodial parent who is the direct beneficiary of the noncustodial parent’s financial payment. In fact, some scholars and fathers’ rights activists suggest that it is the reimbursement of public child support that has stimulated interest in stricter child support enforcement.
The Transformation of Child Support in the United States
Child support in its present form has not always existed. Initially child support was considered a civil matter. Since the arrival of settlers in America, child support has existed in some form, with parental responsibility at the heart of collections of aid. Child support has its foundations in the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601, sometimes referred to as the English Poor Laws. The English Poor Laws were a system of relief to the poor that was financed and administered at the local level (parishes). The poor were divided into three groups: able-bodied adults, children, and the elderly or non–able-bodied. The overseers of the poor relief system were to put the able-bodied to work, to give apprenticeships to poor children, and to provide “competent sums of money” to relieve the non–able-bodied. It is this system of assistance to the needy that British settlers brought with them to America.
Child Support in Colonial America
Colonial child support had a slow start. In colonial America, when a couple married, the wife’s identity merged with that of her husband. Women did not have the right to hold property, so the husband controlled and managed all property. In return, the husband was obligated to provide for his wife and children. Fathers had a nonenforceable duty to support their children. Under the Poor Laws, child support was considered a civil matter. Although desertion was rare, when a man did desert his family, the local community would provide for the mother and child to prevent destitution. In return, local communities would attempt to recover from the father monies spent in support of the mother and child. The money collected from the father was put back into the poor relief system’s reserves. However, near the end of the 18th century, as the population increased, there was an accompanying increase in the numbers of individuals needing assistance, which eventually caused a breakdown of the colonial poor relief system.
Child Support Enforcement and the Making of the Deadbeat Dad
The revolutionary changes brought about by the industrialization and urbanization of the 19th century encouraged courts to strengthen the child support system. During this period, divorce and child custody laws were transformed. For instance, child custody laws that had previously favored the fathers in divorce began to favor the mother, increasingly granting custody of the child to mothers. Therefore, when divorce and desertion rates increased, many mothers and their children became dependent on the state for subsistence. In response to this rise in the utilization of and dependency on public resources, states began to make child support a criminal matter by establishing a legally enforceable child support duty. State legislators passed desertion and nonsupport statutes that criminalized and punished fathers for their refusal to support their child, especially if the mother and child were recipients of public child support. Fathers who failed to comply with child support were either fined or imprisoned.
Despite states’ efforts to improve child support enforcement and to reduce public child support expenditures, a sizable number of fathers and husbands fled the state to avoid their child support obligations, leaving a host of mothers and children destitute and dependent on public child support services. In the mid-20th century, the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act implemented federal guidelines that made fathers who moved from state to state to avoid child support still responsible for their children through both civil and criminal enforcement. Yet these guidelines caused confusion between states regarding the jurisdiction of child support; hence, some fathers could have multiple child support orders. Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, state and federal child support enforcement programs continued to address interstate inconsistencies that provided irresponsible parents with a means of avoiding their child support obligations.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, known to most Americans as welfare reform, emphasized parental responsibility for the financial support of their children as well as implemented more aggressive enforcement techniques and additional provisions that unified state collection efforts. For instance, to reduce delay in establishing wage withholding for parents who are delinquent in their child support payments, PRWORA requires employers to report all new hires to child support enforcement authorities. As a result, the National Directory of New Hires, a centralized electronic system, was developed to match all employees with parents who owe child support and are listed in the federal case registry. In fiscal year 1998, the National Directory of New Hires located 1.2 million parents who were delinquent in their child support payments; in fiscal year 1999, the directory identified an additional 2.8 million delinquent parents.
The most recent child support enforcement effort focused on curtailing deadbeat parents is the creation of the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act (DPPA), which makes it a federal offense for a noncustodial parent to willfully fail to pay a past-due child support obligation, with respect to a child residing in another state. Under the DPPA, if the obligation remains unpaid for longer than one year or is greater than $5,000, then a misdemeanor charge may be considered. Behaviors that constitute a felony offense are: (1) traveling in interstate or foreign commerce with the intent to evade a support obligation if the obligation has remained unpaid for longer than one year or is greater than $5,000 or (2) willfully failing to pay a support obligation regarding a child residing in another state if the obligation has remained unpaid for longer than two years or is greater than $10,000. Maximum penalties for a misdemeanor are six months incarceration and a $5,000 fi ne. Maximum penalties for a felony offense are two years and a $250,000 fi ne.
The past few centuries have seen a noteworthy transformation in the child support system in the United States. Yet there is scholarly and political debate about whether the current system works and, if so, for whom.
Child advocates argue that the child support system has improved but suggest that more changes are needed to improve the health and well-being of children and to lift families out of poverty. For instance, the number of custodial parents receiving full private child support payments has increased over the last 10 years, from 36.9 percent to 45.3 percent. In contrast, among custodial parents who live below the poverty line, only 35 percent received all the private child support that was due.
In terms of public child support–related services, advocates argue that these services rarely prevent poverty and, in fact, are a poverty trap. Public child support services provide meager, below-poverty-level benefits, reduce benefits when mothers earn more, and take away medical benefits when a mother leaves welfare. A strategy such as this promotes dependency and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
However, child advocates note that closely related to the poverty trap is the child support enforcement trap. Specifically, advocates are concerned that custodial parents receiving public child support such as TANF are required to assign their right to private child support to the governmental welfare entity before cash assistance can be received. Moreover, custodial parents must pursue child support from the noncustodial parent, which is then diverted to the welfare assistance program instead of the custodial parent. Child support payments that are used to reimburse government public assistance costs deprive many poor children of much of the child support paid on their behalf. Even after the family leaves welfare and is struggling to avoid return, in some circumstances child support collections will go to repay government arrears before going to the family. What’s more, child advocates note, if the amount of private child support paid equals or exceeds the public child support assistance, the family is moved off of TANF, the cash assistance part of the program.
Finally, the federal government through the Social Security Administration provides up to $4.1 billion in financial incentives to states that create child support and arrearage orders. Again, child advocates argue that this type of child support enforcement system is a trap that perpetuates the cycle of poverty and is more beneficial for the state and federal government than for children and families.
Fathers’ Rights Activists
Overall, fathers’ rights activists find that the current child support system is a gender-biased system that discriminates against men. However, these activists’ dissatisfaction with the child support system begins prior to the child support order, with the divorce proceedings. Many divorced men argue that awarding sole maternal custody denies a father equal rights. Yet many fathers admit that they do not want the responsibility of caring for their children on a daily basis but do want to continue the parenting role and visit with their children regularly.
A second issue that concerns fathers’ rights activists is that mothers are awarded unjust child support payments; that is, more money than is needed to care for the child. Furthermore, fathers seem to resent that they have no control in the manner in which support payments are spent. Even more, fathers who pay child support become angry when visitation with their children is limited, again blaming a gender-biased system for these problems.
Activists also take issue with the term deadbeat dad. They contend that the concept of deadbeat dad carries the connotation of an affluent man who fails to meet his parental responsibility to provide for his children. Some activists suggest that the majority of dads who are labeled as deadbeats do not fit this image. In fact, they argue, many fathers just are not financially able to provide for their children, yet the court awards child support payments that he is unable to afford. For instance, activists assert that men characterized as deadbeats are either (1) remarried and the second family is worse off financially than the original family because the father is supporting his biological children and stepchildren; (2) living in poverty, homeless, or incarcerated; (3) fathers who are providing indirect support to the child and custodial parent such as repairing items around the custodial parent’s house; (4) fathers who cannot find their children because the mother has moved, but the mother has filed a case with the local child support enforcement entity; (5) fathers with high arrearages in relation to their current economic circumstance; or (6) fathers who are truly child support resistors—that is, deadbeat dads.
Finally, some activists claim that child support enforcement benefits all entities related to the divorce industry. They point out that the divorce and child support industry creates jobs for many. For example, family court judges earn $90,000 to $160,000 per year, and each judge requires a staff , not to mention child support staff , social workers, private collections agencies, and attorneys. In addition, they note the availability of federal funding for the administration of child support enforcement programs under the Social Security Act. Federal funding incentives have led a number of for-profit and privately held corporations to offer services to state and local child support agencies ranging from consultation to payment processing. Thus, fathers’ rights activists argue that the current child support system actually tears families apart while benefiting government and child support–related businesses.
- Crowley, Jocelyn, The Politics of Child Support in America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
- Duerr, Jill, and Bruce Fuller, eds., Good Parents or Good Workers? How Policy Shapes Families’ Daily Lives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
- Mandel, Deena, Deadbeat Dads: Subjectivity and Social Construction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.