Orlando Sentinel

The deadbeat dad is less a scoundrel than an object of pity

By Kathleen Parker
Special to the Sentinel
Published in The Orlando Sentinel on October 17, 1999.

It is helpful to have a calculator and a lie detector handy when trying to navigate the backwaters of our nation's child-support industry. Between ravenous bureaucrats, his-'n-her statistics and billion-dollar budgets, it's no wonder Americans can't tell the difference between a deadbeat and a throwaway dad.

For years, Americans have been fed a diet of "deadbeat dad" propaganda while a growing number of fathers heartbroken over the loss of their children suffer the backlash of negative association.

Everyone "knows," for instance, that fathers routinely abandon their children, shirk their responsibility -- to the tune of $34 billion a year in child-support arrearages, by one ubiquitous (apocryphal?) estimate -- and frolic on beaches with girl-friends while their ex-wives and children search clothing dumpsters.

In fact, some fathers do abandon their children, though most in that category never were married to the woman with whom they bred, an occasion that inspires little sympathy for either side. The $34 billion that fathers allegedly owe, meanwhile, is based on a dubious estimate of what the total would be if every non-custodial father earned the median salary and if every single mother had a support award. Most of the fathers on deadbeat lists are undereducated, unskilled laborers. A University of Wisconsin study found that of nonpaying fathers, only 12 percent had annual incomes of more than $18,464; more than half made less than $6,155.

Of fathers with regular visitation, meanwhile, 79 percent pay the amount due, according to a 1995 U.S. Census Bureau report, the most recent year for which figures are available. Indeed, only 12 percent of women with children of absent fathers received no child-support payments, according to the report.

The deadbeat dad, alas, may be more pitiable than contemptible.

Why, then, have politicians been so eager to demonize the "deadbeat dad" when the facts so clearly contradict his existence? Is their denial a function of the pervasiveness of advanced feminist ideology? Or is the divorce industry, which inarguably keeps attorneys in BMWs and greases the gears of government, too prosperous a constituent to offend?

Consider: The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement today employs 59,000, spends $4 billion annually and has draconian police powers unimaginable to most Americans. For failure to pay child support, regardless of the reason, a "deadbeat" can lose his driver's license and passport, his occupational and recreational licenses, have his wages garnished and his assets seized. He also can be restrained without due process -- a governmental feat even accused murderers wouldn't be expected to tolerate.

Granted, the world isn't short on random randies who impregnate women and run. But the "deadbeat dad" is an egregious exaggeration -- a caricature of a few desperate men who for various reasons, sometimes pretty good ones, fail to hand over their paycheck.

In general, the deadbeat dad is less a scoundrel than the pitiful, bastard off-spring of a divorce industry predicated on the mistaken assumption that children belong to one parent (the mother in 90 percent of divorces), and that fathers, regardless of their income, are cash cows.

The children of such couplings surely deserve better than they're getting -- and surely some of that $4 billion in taxpayer money could be used to that end -- but building bureaucracies, policies and a police state around myths and propaganda is helping no one.

The solution to the mythical deadbeat problem is foremost to recognize that we're really talking about two classes of people -- the welfare (never-married) class for whom lack of education and unemployment are the biggest problem; and the divorce class, whose problems stem largely from the win-lose adversarial court system.

In both cases, government might properly play a role in helping fathers become part of their children's lives rather than in further alienating them. Children would win; lawyers would lose; bureaucrats might get real jobs; and government would return to the original concept of by and for the people, rather than against.

Any dissenters to this ideal might be considered suspect.

[Posted 10/15/1999 6:34 PM EST]

Copyright 1999 Orlando Sentinel Online.