ACFC ANALYSIS - Dead-Broke Dads

Thanks to Roger Gay for his analysis of the child support misinformation in a recent article by Elaine Sorensen. The original article appears below Roger's comments. Sorensen was one of the authors of the absurd estimates of $35 to $50 billion in unpaid support that was used to manipulate Congress into enacting the current repressive child support laws, when the actual figures reported by OCSE at the time were $5 to $6 billion. This article represents "new thinking" inside the Beltway that now recognizes that it is not cost-effective to simply persecute low-income fathers who cannot possibly pay unrealistically high child support orders. You can't squeeze blood out of a turnip, and even Sorensen has finally recognized that repressive measures simply aren't working. Low-income fathers need just as much support as low-income mothers in the form of job training and counseling, and this is a step in the right direction.

But beyond that, Sorensen is still clearly locked in an ideological straight-jacket that lumps middle and upper-income fathers in a one-size-fits-all de-humanization of fathers, and sees the issue only in terms of maximization of payments to mothers, whether or not there is equity or fairness for fathers. Until the Federal government adopts a policy of equity and fairness to both parents we expect the problem of fatherlessness in America to continue to grow. Lumping middle and upper-income fathers with lower-income fathers may help bureaucrats deceive Congress with estimates of "effectiveness" as a result of seizure of assets (as well as identity papers such as driver's licenses and passports) by administrative process without review of the courts, but it is not what children need. Despite her denial of a one-size-fits-all policy, Sorensen simply wants to raise low-income fathers to a level where she can then seize their new "income." Treating all fathers in the inhuman way Milosevic treated Kosovar refugees can only further alienate millions of fathers, but this is current policy. What children need, and what Sorensen does not yet acknowledge, is a shared parenting system where both parents equally support their children emotionally as well as financially.

On that point, in addition to Roger's comments below, we note that in citing a figure of 9 million children of low-income parents who do not see their fathers, Sorensen deceptively understates the magnitude of the problem. More realistic overall estimates are 19 to 23 million children whose fathers are effectively gone from their lives, and this is headed for half the children of America. We do not expect this trend to reverse until the ideological rigidity represented by Elaine Sorensen is eliminated from public policy.


Counter-point: "Dead-Broke Dads"

By Roger F. Gay, Director PICSLT
Project for Improvement of Child Support Litigation Technology

Response to an Op-ed by Elaine Sorensen, The Urban Institute, Washington Post, June 9, 1999; Page A25.

Urban Institute principal researcher Elaine Sorensen is spreading her news across the land. Her June 9 Op-ed, "Dead-broke Dads," was not her first on the subject of child support to appear in a major newspaper recently. In it, she claims that only 31 percent of single parents receive child support. As an expert, I need clarification. Her figure is just too far from the 80% compliance rate reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is possible that she limited her analysis only to poor families dependent on welfare, but she doesn't say so.

It gets worse. "In sharp contrast with single mothers" she writes, "rates of child support for children living with previously married mothers [have] increased from 36 percent to 42 percent" since the mid-1970s. I can only make an educated guess as to what she means. Those numbers are rather close to the percentage of fathers' total net income that divorced mothers receive as "child support." It is an arbitrary increase in that percentage that Elaine Sorensen has lobbied for over the past several years. But the arbitrary increases that have occurred since the mid-1970s have been much greater than that, owing to federally mandated child support formulae.

We should keep in mind that today's federal and state "child support" policies effect all child support orders and payments regardless of parental income. "Child support" reform has consistently been coupled with the welfare reform debate, but the effects of subsequent reforms have not been limited to welfare cases.

There is also credible (and intuitive) evidence that money is an important factor in fathers' efforts to maintain a significant continuing relationship with their children. Lack of significant involvement of fathers in the lives of their children is directly related to the great bulk of serious juvenile problems. Setting child support awards arbitrarily high is not only likely to be unconstitutional, it is also very poor social policy. So what more and different needs to be done?

Step one: Child support should be a parent's fair share of the financial resources needed for care and maintenance of their children. An award of "child support" should not be for the enrichment of the other parent, which may be covered by spousal support and other awards when appropriate. It should not be set arbitrarily high for the sake of encouraging private collection businesses, which receive a percent of what is paid.

The good news is that fathers, those who know that they are fathers, often accept their new family role voluntarily. Lack of financial support most often stems from inability rather than unwillingness. Wage withholding, revocation of drivers licenses, and jail sentences do not contribute significantly to the payment of child support. The $3 billion annual cost to taxpayers for the new child support system is not justified. That means we can eliminate the whole program and no one will notice accept a handful of bureaucrats and a few principal researchers living on public grants.

Roger F. Gay has been the director of Project for the Improvement of Child Support Technology since 1989. PICSLT performs leading edge scientific and engineering research and provides commentary and consulting on child support policy in the United States.