Bad Dads

Friday, Jan. 7, 1999
(This is an unedited, uncorrected transcript.)
Prepared by Burrelle’s Information Services, which takes sole responsibility for accuracy of transcription.

BARBARA WALTERS, ABCNEWS All these years we’ve been hearing bad things about divorced fathers, those so-called deadbeat dads. Many accused of living it up while their wives and children have to scrape by. Well, that’s a picture that’s been widely painted, and, while it’s true in some cases, now there is a surprising discovery. John Stossel’s report could change our whole point of view.

1ST OFFICER The sheriff’s department. Open the door.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON I challenge the fathers of this country to love and care for their children.

2ND OFFICER What’s the guy’s name.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON If your family has separated, you must pay your child support.

JOHN STOSSEL, ABCNEWS (VO) We’ve heard it again and again. So often fathers behave horribly, selfishly walking out on their kids.

MAN These are folks who are oblivious to their responsibility.

JOHN STOSSEL We’ve heard many men just refuse to pay.

OFFSCREEN VOICE One person alone owed more than $37,000.

MOTHER Right now, I’m begging and borrowing. I’m living off the neighbors.

JOHN STOSSEL (VO) So while ex-wives and children struggle, men live it up.
But what we’re about to tell you is not the usual story about those deadbeat dads. Because it turns out that much of what we’ve heard about them is distorted.
The distortion began with US Census data that said half of divorced fathers don’t pay all the child support they owe and with this book written by sociologist Lenore Weitzman. It’s claim that men prosper after divorce while women and children suffer terribly got lots of publicity.

PETER JENNINGS, ABCNEWS (From tape) Women and children suffer a 73 percent decline in their standard of living in the first year after divorce. Men, on the other hand, had a 42 percent increase.

JOHN STOSSEL These statistics shocked Arizona State University psychologist Sanford Braver who wondered...

SANFORD BRAVER Why are these divorced fathers acting so irresponsibly? How could a dad abandon his child?

JOHN STOSSEL So you believed this data about fathers being...

SANFORD BRAVER Absolutely.

JOHN STOSSEL And you were just trying to figure out why?

SANFORD BRAVER Right. And I started realizing that there were some really gaping holes in what we thought we knew and why things were the way they were.

JOHN STOSSEL (VO) Braver then conducted a study of 400 divorces in one part of Arizona, the biggest federally-funded study ever done on divorced dads. What he found was very different from conventional wisdom.
Divorced mothers commonly end up in poverty as a result of the appalling irresponsibility of dads who don’t pay their child support. Men, on the other hand, make out like bandits.

DIANE O’CONNELL Absolutely false.

JOHN STOSSEL Science journalist Diane O’Connell joined Braver’s project after he’d started compiling data that contradicted Weitzman’s findings.

DIANE O’CONNELL It really opened my eyes that there was another side to this story.

JOHN STOSSEL Now, O’Connell and Braver have written this book about what they say are myths about divorced dads. Myths like the famous Weitzman statistic about men’s living standards increasing while women’s declined 73 percent.

DIANE O’CONNELL And that figure was a mistake. The result of a mathematical error.

JOHN STOSSEL A math mistake?

SANFORD BRAVER Reversing a couple of figures.

JOHN STOSSEL But this is cited everywhere. Three hundred forty-eight social science articles, 250 law review articles, 24 appeals court cases. That’s a famous statistic.

SANFORD BRAVER And it’s wrong.

JOHN STOSSEL Weitzman wouldn’t talk to us. But she does now admit that she made a mistake on the math. She says it was the fault of the computer analyst. It did take her more than 10 years to admit the mistake. So, what’s the truth? Who does make out best financially after divorce?
(VO) Well, here’s the graph from Weitzman’s book versus what other researchers discovered when they corrected the math mistake. Then Braver included the cost of father’s visitation and tax breaks for moms.

SANFORD BRAVER Our results show that men and women come out almost exactly equally.

JOHN STOSSEL (VO) And what about that census data about so many dads being deadbeats?
Another widespread belief is that most divorced fathers selfishly refuse to pay their child support. True?

DIANE O’CONNELL No, it’s not true at all.

1ST WOMAN Hi. I’m from the US Census Bureau.

JOHN STOSSEL (VO) The census gave us this tape to illustrate how they get their information. Every couple of years the census sends workers out to people’s homes to ask, is child support being paid?
They found that half the time it isn’t.

DIANE O’CONNELL Yeah, but who are they asking? They’re asking the mothers. They’re not asking the fathers. You’re getting one side of the story.

JOHN STOSSEL (VO) Amazingly, the government bases all its data on child support on questions asked of just one of the parents.
They’re asking the parent who has custody.

DIANE O’CONNELL Exactly.

JOHN STOSSEL And 90 percent of the time that’s the mother.

DIANE O’CONNELL That’s the mother.

SANFORD BRAVER Everything we knew about non-custodial fathers, it turns out we knew from custodial mothers.

JOHN STOSSEL (VO) Dan Weinberg heads the census division that collects the data.
So the census worker says, how much in child support payments were you supposed to receive this year? And the woman remembers.

DAN WEINBERG Yes.

JOHN STOSSEL How much did you actually receive? I just have a hard time believing that these people, many of whom are angry, are going to give honest answers.

DAN WEINBERG Actually—well, the anger may help them remember what they’re supposed to receive.

JOHN STOSSEL Why not go to the man and ask, is it true?

DAN WEINBERG We would be violating the confidentiality of the custodial mother.

JOHN STOSSEL Is there any cross-check.

DAN WEINBERG No. We don’t check any of it.

JOHN STOSSEL But wouldn’t they lie just because they’re mad at the man?

DAN WEINBERG People are basically honest.

JOHN STOSSEL (VO) When Braver in his study asked both parents, he found much higher levels of child support paid, on average a 70 percent compliance rate.
(VO) Another myth is that many divorced dads never bother to see their children. The media calls them runaway dads. But Braver says the overwhelming majority of recently divorced dads do see their kids or try to. And when they don’t, he says, there’s often a good reason. Consider Bob’s story which 20/20 presented years ago.
(Clip from previously aired 20/20)

SANFORD BRAVER We found that a surprising number of fathers were impeded in their efforts. The mother just simply said, ‘No, you can’t see your kid.’
(Clip from previously aired 20/20)

JOHN STOSSEL (VO) Bob’s ex-wife didn’t say that. But Bob says she used her time with the kids to poison their minds against him. He allowed a 20/20 hidden camera to follow him as he tried to visit his children. Though Bob had court-ordered visitation, he said he rarely got to spend the day with his five kids.
(Clip from previously aired 20/20)

JOHN STOSSEL (VO) The family court judge ordered Bob’s ex-wife to encourage visitation, but orders like that are rarely enforced.
(Clip from previously aired 20/20)

JOHN STOSSEL (VO) His ex-wife didn’t want to be interviewed but denies she ever tried to turn the kids against their father. She says they were afraid of him. But the parent who has custody does have enormous power to influence the children.
(Clip from previously aired 20/20)

JOHN STOSSEL (VO) Shortly after this broadcast, Bob did give up. He kept paying child support, but he moved out of state. Six months later, one of his sons was killed in a bicycle accident. Last winter Bob saw all his children for the first time in 15 years, when his oldest daughter asked him to give her away at her wedding. Would that long estrangement have been avoided if the court order against the mother had been aggressively enforced?

DIANE O’CONNELL There’s no bite to the law. What are they going to do to enforce it? They can’t garnish her wages the way the government can garnish a father’s wages if he doesn’t pay child support. There is no legal recourse. They’re not going to throw the mother in jail.

JOHN STOSSEL They do throw dads in jail.

2ND WOMAN Can you come to the door? Sheriff’s Department.

JOHN STOSSEL (VO) The terrible reputation of the deadbeat dad has led America to create an extraordinary campaign against the deadbeat. Thousands of deputies, thousands of arrests, an enormous child support bureaucracy chasing the dads. Just a mother’s word that the man hasn’t paid sometimes start a process that leads to his bank accounts and property being seized or jail time.

HERBERT GLICKMAN I really have no choice but to incarcerate you until you come up with a reasonable payment.

JOHN STOSSEL Family court Judge Herbert Glickman says the system is not biased against dads.

HERBERT GLICKMAN But the law is clear in just about every state that the obligation to pay child support is unrelated to the right to have visitation with the children.

JOHN STOSSEL They have to pay support even if she’s not letting them in?

HERBERT GLICKMAN That is true. That is true.

DIANE O’CONNELL They get to the point where they say, ‘Well, I give up. What am I, just a wallet?’ So that’s when they begin to drop out of their kids’ lives.

JOHN STOSSEL (VO) And of course we know that’s terrible for the kids. So it’s a vicious circle. We want dads to be with their kids, but the system focuses on getting money from the dads, not time. And that drives many fathers away.

SANFORD BRAVER Society wants to blame fathers, society wants to see fathers as bad guys.

DIANE O’CONNELL You can’t blame mothers. It’s not politically correct to blame mothers. And you certainly cannot blame the children. So who’s left? Well, fathers, males, are an easy target.

JOHN STOSSEL There are lots of bad guys.

DIANE O’CONNELL Oh, absolutely. Yes, there are. But they are not the majority. And they are not the only story. But they’re the ones that we hear about.

JOHN STOSSEL (VO) So from census data that’s questionable, from an influential book that was just wrong, we have the image of the terrible dad, which reinforces a system that Braver says drives fathers away.

SANFORD BRAVER We are depriving children of a second parent. We’re hurting the people who deserve the most help: the children.

BARBARA WALTERS I think, John, most of us would really agree that it is better if a child has two parents and that even if you’re divorced you shouldn’t use anger to keep the child from seeing the other parent. However, it is hard for me to believe that most fathers are financially responsible, because I hear from so many women who are struggling.

JOHN STOSSEL You think because you’re a woman you find this hard to believe?

BARBARA WALTERS Yeah.

JOHN STOSSEL Well, I can see your point. I believe that more women are more caring about children and more men than women behave selfishly. But I think this data is accurate and most men are responsible. And if this misinformation has led kids to be deprived of a second parent, that’s terrible.

BARBARA WALTERS You’re right. You know, I guess I’ll just have to change my tune.

JOHN STOSSEL Good.

BARBARA WALTERS If you would like to chat with Sanford Braver, the psychologist in our report, he’ll be available Monday afternoon 3:00 PM Eastern time at our Web site at abcnews.com.

Content and programming copyright 1999 ABC News. Transcript by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc.