Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Myth of the Deadbeat Dad

Type the title of this post into Google, and 14,500 web pages turn up (now, I suppose, 14,501). All by father’s rights groups (some of them second wives), or by individual bloggers.

However, in the mainstream news media, the Deadbeat Dad is not a myth, but is one of the world’s worst problems, worse than AIDS, terrorism, and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

According to Charles Blow of the New York Times , 60% of divorced Black fathers and 45% of divorced white fathers are deadbeat dads, and, in the process, are doing irreparable damage to their children. Mr. Blow lists his source as “Charting Parenthood: A Statistical Portrait of Fathers and Mothers in America”, Child Trends, 2002.

Blogs such as that of the Alliance for Non-Custodial Parents Rights write that they are posting an article that Kathleen Parker wrote in The Orlando Sentinel, Jan 24 1999. According to that blog, Ms. Parker obtained the statistic from the U.S. Census bureau that only 10% of all divorced fathers are deadbeat dads. If we limit the term ‘deadbeat’ to only those fathers who pay nothing, excluding those who manage to make a partial (even a miniscule payment), Mr. Blow says that the numbers are 20% of divorced white fathers and 42% of divorced Black fathers.

There seems to be a disconnect here, and the disconnect would appear, prima facie, to be in Mr. Blow’s favour, since the Census Bureau does not seem to have any easily obtainable data on child support payments. I was only able to obtain statistics on deadbeat dads from Child Trends, and they support Mr. Blow.

This reminds me of the old story that, if one puts a frog into hot water, the frog will jump out, but if one puts the frog into cold water and heats it gradually, the frog won’t notice and will cook up into a nice lunch. Frogs are actually too smart for that, but American men aren’t.

Before Clinton, there was AFDC, which officially stood, in an Orwellian fashion, for Aid to Families with Dependent Children. In fact, it was Aid for Single Females with Dependent Children, with an emphasis on single. A more accurate title would have been, Tax on Poor Families, or Act to Discourage Poor Families.

Families headed by two parents with meagre salaries were eligible for food vouchers.

However, single mothers were not only eligible for food vouchers, but were also eligible for medical vouchers, rent vouchers, and a small cash payment. For the 10% of men with the lowest salaries, their families would have much more total benefits from AFDC, provided the men were absent. The most responsible of these fathers found themselves accommodation elsewhere, and tried to send cash and to see their children if possible but there was a risk: if a man was around or sending money, the woman was not eligible for AFDC. Visiting his children or sending them money risked their welfare. The caseworkers were required to inspect regularly, and to terminate AFDC benefits if they found evidence of a man around, as in men's clothing or other artefacts in the apartment provided to the single mother and children. And, of course, the mother had to say the father had abandoned the family, or she would not be eligible for AFDC.

And, of course, this system affected a much larger percentage of Blacks than whites.

Conservatives hated AFDC, giving money to women for having children out of wedlock, especially Black women.

Reagan, back in the mid-‘80s when the US did not have the technology to enforce the law, signed a bill requiring fathers to pay 100% of the AFDC payments, beginning in 1995. The fathers of AFDC children, for the most part, did not earn 100% of the AFDC payments, but Clinton signed the enabling legislation, and abolished AFDC.

Under the new law, women who had been collecting AFDC, or who wished to apply for AFDC, must name the father or fathers of their children. A judge must then set the amount the fathers have to pay, based on state guidelines, guidelines that vary widely from state to state. In some states, the judges must asses a portion of the father’s pay check. In other states, the guidelines require the judge to award at least as much as the former AFDC payment, and also must require the father to reimburse the government for all AFDC monies already expended.

So, in 1996, even though 100% of the awards were garnished from the fathers’ salaries by the tax assessors, 45% of white fathers and 60% of Black fathers still refused to pay the full amount. How could they refuse? Only by failing to earn as much as the judge awarded. The tax authority could only take whichever was less, the full amount of tax plus the support awarded by the court, or 100% of the man's pay.

Since garnishing their pay had been insufficient, in 1998 Clinton made it a felony to earn less than the full amount of the award, an act wildly popular with liberals, conservatives, and the mainstream press. But even throwing more than 10% of divorced fathers in jail hasn’t been enough to get them to pay the full award, so clearly, much harsher methods are needed. Waterboarding, perhaps?

The other part of the myth is that many fathers run off, abandoning their children, and never make an effort to see them. This ignores the fact that, in many jurisdictions, the woman receives a much larger cash award in a divorce if she alleges abuse.

In some courts, the abuse must be proven, and the woman will be punished for perjury if she makes such allegations without any evidence. However, in other jurisdictions, it is believed (and I have personally observed judges act on this belief in several states, including Arkansas and West Virginia), that most men know how to abuse their women and children in ways that leave absolutely no proof or evidence of any kind, and the criminal justice system is helpless and unable to bring these demons (and I am not being figurative when I write ‘demons’) to justice. The Divorce Courts have no such limitations, but can find these men guilty of demonic abuse that left no evidence, and issue restraining orders that the man must never see his children again, issued along with (to be fair) a visitation order for bi-weekly visits. Should the man fail to exercise his visitation rights, he will be punished. Should he attempt to exercise his visitation rights, he is in violation of the restraining order, and will be punished. Since these men are preternatural demons, such punishment only seems fair.

And it's their own neglect if these fathers decide not to incur immediate imprisonment by violating the restraining order, even though their ex wives would have dialed 911 and ensured that they never saw their children. They still should have tried, even if it meant going to jail for life, and even though they would never have succeeded in seeing their children. But most don't, instead using the restraining order as an excuse not to wage futile attempts to see their children.