I’ve been sitting on this piece for a while. Part of me has been tinkering with more research and data hunting to shore up my points. But another part of me has been procrastinating simply because I suspect deep down that there’s no amount of factual evidence (or lack thereof) which can sway the opinions of people who have married themselves to a dogmatic belief.
Such as the firm belief most people in America carry that child support payments from one parent to the other are necessary “for the benefit of the child”.
The truth is that I’ve already published some pretty investigative work on the subject of child support here in my own city of Grand Rapids, which has gone largely ignored—at least by my local media readers and Medium’s algorithms. People mostly only want facts to use as a hammer in social media arguments. Not to actually shape their opinions about reality.
So I’m going to try another track, and focus on what I determine to be the real heart of this issue: people’s beliefs, which are influenced by their emotions. And yeah, there’ll be facts and a reality check. But my primary goal is to find common ground, to speak to how people feel about child support, and perhaps to budge it a bit.
And how we feel about issues, if you think about it, is actually pretty damn important. Emotional intelligence is woefully undervalued by society.
So let’s get emotionally smart about child support, folks. Let’s talk about this realsauce: what are the preconceptions upon which the concept of child support are based? What are our beliefs about the economics of parenting, and our beliefs about parents’ roles in children’s lives, and - -what should be most important in this conversation - -what do we believe about what’s best for our children?
Why do we believe child support is necessary?
The mindset that it’s good, and moral, and necessary for a noncustodial parent to pay child support to their children’s custodial parent is pervasive. From my own grandmotherly attorney, to the comments of Medium’s third wave feminists, to even our fictional pop culture universes.
Remember that part in Ant-Man — the first one–when Scott Lang goes to see his daughter at her birthday party after getting out of prison for an unjust, nonviolent offense? Do you remember what happens? His ex-wife turns Scott away, and tells him he’s not allowed to see his daughter until he pays all his back owed child support that had accrued during his prison time. And what does Scott do? Tries his best to pay back the debt by working minimum wage jobs he can’t even keep due to his criminal record. Inevitably out of desperation, he turns back to crime to get the money. Just to see his fucking daughter.
And what do we, as the audience do? Accept all this as normal, and right.
Never mind the fact that child support and custody are handled as separate cases, by just about any state law, and you absolutely may not deny parenting time due to unpaid child support — that’s illegal. But we as the audience accept this morally dubious and outright unlawful scenario as all well and good. Which just goes to show how incredibly moralized our perception of child support has become.
Much more disturbingly: how clearly we see child support as being a quid-pro-quo for getting to see your kids. Wanna see your kids? Better pay off your baby mama. That’s the implication of this moralization, in a short, ugly nutshell. And unfortunately, all too often, that’s the reality itself.
But child support is, if you actually think about it in a much larger moral context, a very modern invention. I don’t recall Jesus mentioning anywhere that the way into heaven was to pay your child support on time. So let’s stop for a moment and ask ourselves why this concept of child support has become so morally charged for our society.
After a lot of research, which includes watching the Clinton administration grandstand over their Child Support Recovery Act in real time as a child in the early 90s, I’ve come to conclude that our moralizing of child support is a similar animal to the “reefer madness” stigma surrounding marijuana which we’re just now kicking to the curb.
It’s state-sponsored moralism, in essence. Motivated financially. #Fakenews, if you will. But we’ll get to my rationale for that in a second — let’s stick with our emotional motivation to help children, and try to find some common ground first.
I think it’s safe to assume that the root of our emotional motivation for believing that child support payments are necessary is the belief that children need parents who are present and active in their lives. More specifically: that if parents can’t be physically present in their children’s lives, they should support their children’s well being by supporting them financially. Because more money will help the children have a higher quality of life, which will be better for their development.
And this is a reasonable enough series of conclusions, until it’s not. There’s a fundamental flaw, here.
Giving money to a parent does not automatically create a more nurturing, caring environment for their child. We as adults all know that money cannot buy happiness and love. And before busting out the talk about my privileged “white” perspective (I’m Irish, thanks), consider my own lower middle class background, and rural community. I paid for my school by being a live-in nanny and keeping my GPA high enough to receive full Pell grants, and I’ve lived client check to client check for more of my career than I care to acknowledge (including as a young mother), so don’t tell me I don’t understand what it’s like to not have money. What I can tell you is that even many of those at the bottom of the economic pool know that having more money doesn’t make you happier. And we also know that even the best parents don’t always invest in their kids, or make the wisest investments.
I love my white trash family. I wouldn’t loan my brother $20, and I have to keep a close eye on my dad’s barn, or it fills up with the overflow from my dearest cousins’ hoarding habit. Bless their hearts—in the kindly Midwestern sense. Don’t make me say more on the subject, or nobody will come to Thanksgiving dinner.
People aren’t perfect. That includes custodial parents. It’s okay.
I’m just pointing out that with absolutely no accountability or tracking of how child support payments are spent—or even what real expenses they’re supposed to be paying for—we’re outright naive in assuming that all child support payments are directly funding the healthy development of our next generation. Like, born in a barn yesterday naive. And no, that’s not bigoted Neo-conservatism; that’s just the reality of human nature.
Beyond all this, and more importantly: based on my research from early childhood educational grantwriting, I can also tell you that while income may have a correlation to healthy childhood development, the only causation to be found comes from children being highly involved in their parents’ and extended families’ lives.
In other words: money doesn’t buy good family, but good family can buy you a lot.
Money can’t buy loving grandparents, or good neighbors. Money also is no kind of replacement for the presence of a loving, stable parent. And it’s kind of bizarre for us to create a system which equates the two, quite frankly. As in, “what the fuck kind of money-centric Twilight Zone is this,” kind of bizarre.
So let’s go back to the basics. What can we agree on, morally speaking?
I think we can all agree on one thing: our primary goal in all this is to serve the best interest of the child first and foremost, parents second. Yeah? Yeah.
So, if we’re trying to serve the best interests of the child, why are we centering the issue around money? Why is our automatic assumption that what children living in a single parent home need in order to be well nurtured is for dad to give mom money?
Same reason why Jeff Sessions and the other old, anthropomorphized bathroom mops who call themselves civil servants believe that marijuana is evil. Good old fashioned state-sponsored propaganda, in order to increase federal income and benefit key players.
No; really, and literally. It’s just about the money. It only ever was.
Why child support really exists
In 1910, the US passed the Uniform Desertion and Non-Support Act, which criminalized willful abandonment and financial neglect of children under the age of 16. If we put this in the context of pre-WWI US society at the time, we’ll recall that when this passed, we were: a) largely an agricultural society, with b) large families with many children to help run the farm, which c) operated functionally as businesses as well as families, meaning that d) when a patriarch of the household left, it was tantamount to a CEO abandoning his company in the net effect it had on the rest of family and its farm.
Not to mention the fact that in 1910, women’s legal rights were severely limited. They couldn’t vote; maintaining a career enough to support a family was…tough, to say the least. Although the pattern of expectation set by the 1910 child support legislature likely facilitated the development of what contemporary writer Ernest B. Bax referred to as “aggressive weakness” which has since flourished in modern feminism, its initial intention was quite practical. Its existence was necessary.
So you can see how, from the context of society at the time, this legislature made sense. Ironically, of all the child support bills which would come to pass, this bill–which was most vital to the children and families it impacted–was the most toothless. It wasn’t enforceable across state lines, and it didn’t really see much enforcement at all until 1950 (post implementation of FDR’s social welfare programs), when the foundation for our current child support system was laid with the Social Security Act Amendment 42 USC, 602(a)(11). This bill effectively tied state-run welfare programs to child support enforcement, requiring states to enforce child support payments for the noncustodial parents of children receiving public assistance. The same year, another bill allowed states to enforce child support across state lines.
As a sidenote, this 70 year old bill is also the reason why when a woman who, to protect her and her child’s safety (or for other reasons), chooses not to disclose the identity of her child’s biological father goes to apply for WIC, she will be told she can’t receive support until she coughs up the identity of her child’s bio dad. Establishing paternity for support enforcement can lead to all kinds of horriffic and very real situations, like men being suddenly slapped with child support for a child they had no knowledge about–and in some cases which aren’t even their biological children. There have been many public cases, and many more private, in which men have legally established through DNA testing that they are not the biological father, only to be told they have to continue to pay child support because the change can’t be input into the system (no, I’m not making this up – not even a little). Due to legislature passed since then, establishing paternity for support also opens the door to paternal custody, which is how we get rapists successfully suing for custody of their rape victims’ children in many states to this day.1 See? Like I said: horriffic, on all sides. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
So why was this act passed in 1950? Was it to more strictly enforce child support, in order to capture that income for the agricultural families which needed it most? Nope; it was to attempt to pay for states’ costs for the child-related welfare programs FDR had kickstarted. Which is why, if you’re a recipient of child-related welfare (under what’s called the TANF program now), you can expect some to nearly all of your child support payments to be garnished by the state in lieu of welfare.
Let me state the key part of that again, more clearly, for emphasis:
Child support enforcement was created by the federal government as a way for states to recoup the costs of providing child-related welfare.
It was not created with the primary goal of providing for the best interest of the child, or of protecting families. The 1950 Act — the one where child support actually gets enforced — has the express goal of recouping welfare costs to the state. Which is NOT the same thing as nurturing children or providing for families. Not even a little.
The 1974 Social Security amendment is even more of a doozy, precipitating the Child Support Enforcement (CSE program). As the Congressional Research Service’s 2012 report chronicles:
“The CSE program was passed by Congress in 1975 with two primary goals. The first goal was to reduce public expenditures for actual and potential welfare recipients by obtaining ongoing support from noncustodial parents. The second goal was to establish paternity for children born outside marriage so that child support could be obtained.”
Consider, again, the context of society at the time of legislation. In the 1970s, married nuclear families were the standard, and they were gendered more often than not: fathers were sole breadwinners, and mothers raised the children. Large barriers existed for women in the workplace. However, when California legalized no-fault divorce in 1969 and other states began to follow suit, the country saw a flood of divorces. Legislators sought a way to ensure families with children could maintain financial consistency post-divorce, in a society not yet structured for single parents to work. At the time, research showed that the single greatest cause for the rise in welfare costs was divorce–and it also showed divorced fathers’ incomes going up post-divorce, while custodial mothers’ went down. Meanwhile, the 60’s and 70’s promotion of free love and exploration outside of traditional religious dogma had led to a wave of children outside of marriage, which the State blamed for increases in the costs of entitlement programs.
Thus, the narrative of the deadbeat dad was formed.
Read it in the Finance Committee’s own words in their December 1974 report on the CSE legislation: “The problem of welfare in the United States is, to a considerable extent, a problem of the non-support of children by their absent parents.” The report also specifies that the goal of the new “CSE program would be to lower welfare costs to the taxpayer and to deter fathers from abandoning their families.”
That’s a pretty fucking judgemental and reductive conclusion to come to from such a complex situation, with so much social change in the air. And pretty damned presumptuous, if you ask me. Since when is it our government’s job to tell us how we should structure our families? Isn’t that antithetical to America’s entire life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness ethos?
What’s more, let’s let the chill of that phrase sink in : the problem of welfare. This is legislative speak for “the cost to our bottom line”. So that what. We can buy more tanks? Give Monsanto and BP more tax breaks? Give more bonuses to Wall Street criminals? Don’t get me started.
This gymnastic, pseudo-economic moralizing is the basis of our entire child support system to this day.
A 1975 amendment also tasked states with creating their own child support collection agencies, which are known today as Friend of the Court.
A friend, indeed.
In 1990, Clinton administration officials made the following comments in support of their legislative crackdown on “deadbeat parents”. Just listen to how, despite the fact that they keep mentioning the child’s best interest, everything ultimately comes down to money.
“The failure to support children in this country is an outrage…ultimately born by taxpayers. The bulk of the uncollected is in the innerstate [which is code for urban] market.”
Hello racism, our old friend.
“It results in many families not having the resources that they need to raise their children effectively and caringly. It means taxpayers are left footing the bill for those uncollected child support orders.”
Ah, there it is : these urban, deadbeat dads are costing us honest taxpayers money. And we need to take it out of their flesh. Which is basically the message Bill Clinton sent, quite emphatically:
“Any parent who is avoiding his or her child support should listen carefully: we will find you, we will catch you, we will make you pay…if you’re not paying child support, we will garnish your wages, suspend your license, track you across state lines, and if necessary, require you to work off what you owe.”
And here comes the kicker:
“Child support enforcement is essential to the welfare reform effort.”
There it is. Right there, in plain sight, where it’s always been.
It doesn’t matter how you feel about child support, or how normalized and moralized it’s become in your worldview. None of that changes the reality that child support enforcement is designed to pay for welfare. Not to look out for childrens’ best interest.
And no. Paying for welfare and providing for children’s best interest are NOT the same thing, and I don’t think I should have to explain why.
Of course, the irony is that less than half of child support recipients are on welfare (aka TANF), which means over half the program’s participants don’t even contribute to its financial goal. Burdened by ineffective and cruelly bureaucratic implementation, the program has never come close to succeeding in its goal of matching welfare costs.
But Marjorie, you say, there are many mothers who need that income, who have given up their careers to raise their children, and who wouldn’t be able to pay their bills if it weren’t for that support.
First: I think it’s actually pretty misogynist to assume that women will be in more need of supplemental income post-breakup than men. To believe women can’t stand on their own two feet, financially.
Statistically, though, it seems to be unfortunately true. As of the most recent US census data, five out of six custodial parents are women; custodial mothers experience poverty at nearly twice the rate as custodial fathers; and mothers are 20% more likely to sue for child support than fathers. Mothers are twice as likely to not work at all than fathers are.
tl;dr - Custodial mothers work less and seek more child support than fathers. A lot more, if we remember that 83% of custodial parents are women.
And I think there are a few legitimate reasons for that–within limits. As we all know, women are typically more consumed with child raising particularly in the first six months, during breastfeeding and early bonding. One could generously round this all the way up to age three or four, if you wanted to be hardlined about children being with their parents instead of in daycare. This either prohibits employment or makes full time employment much more difficult for women disproportionately.
To a very debatable degree. I mean, I was taking client calls from my bed one week postpartum, so if you get to do nothing but laundry while you watch Desperate Housewives until your baby is four years old, you’re a lucky fucking bitch IMO. But that’s just my perspective.
Still, trying to work with a little one in tow is no small feat, and childcare costs are significant. With this in mind, I’m comfortable saying that it might be fair for a noncustodial parent to provide some level of financial support for a child’s first five years, until they reach school age (and the custodial parents’ potential cost for childcare plummet). But that’s a period of five years. The real term limit on child support has been, and continues to be, anywhere from 18 to 21 years old depending on the state — sometimes even older.
$500 per month for one child for five years is $30,000. $500 per month for eighteen years is $108,000.
Over $100,000 in less than two decades is a lot of fucking money.
And $500 is just the baseline median. Child support is calculated based on income, so if the paying parent has a decent-paying job and the receiving parent chooses not to work at all (which is an option for them, legally speaking), that number can reach into thousands of dollars per month. This is perhaps one of the most capriciously arbitrary aspects of the whole legislature: that the amount is not based on the actual financial needs of the custodial parent, but on the incomes of the parents. What’s more: support payments are NOT guaranteed to be recalculated if the paying parent’s income goes down. Whether or not a paying parent’s support can be lowered is entirely up to the judge, based on what they deem to be the parent’s earning “potential”.
This, in essence, means that Child Support Enforcement can legally require a parent to pay far more than they can actually afford, and/or force parents to remain in roles which are bad for their mental and physical health under the threat of being jailed for child support payments they can’t afford. It also means that CSE empowers custodial parents to weaponize their children in order to continue to financially abuse their victims two decades after divorce. And no; these circumstances are by no means rare. They happen every single day, to real people - -particularly those with the least financial resources to fund a legal battle. In the end, the practical and emotional impact on children is significant. And negative. Quite horrific, actually.
And all for what? Why?
Why do we assume that custodial parents can’t be capable of financially supporting themselves and their school-aged children? That’s a pretty big fucking part of the role of taking care of your children, isn’t it — providing for them? Why would our legislature assume that a custodial parent in today’s society isn’t perfectly capable of supporting themselves and their school-aged children?
Hell, I know plenty of women (myself included) who have managed to start companies, finish law degrees while working full time, or freelance, all while successfully having and raising babies. Women are supposed to be good at multi-tasking and creative problem solving, right? I mean, let’s be super honest for a moment: it’s not like 98% of stay at home and/or nonworking custodial moms are feeding their family from their own garden and homeschooling their children (which is what my own mom did, while running a small business). So don’t feed me the whole “being a mom is a full time job” line of bull unless you’re in that elite 2%.
So what the actual fuck is going on, here?
A sexist, outdated model
It’s amazing to me how a system can be simultaneously both misogynist and misandrist (that means being sexist against men, for those who aren’t familiar with misogyny’s counterpart), but child support manages to pull it off. It hammers us with the narrative of the deadbeat dad in spite of its assertion that gender bias plays no role in determining custody and support. And with 83% of all custodial parents being women, it’s clearly a system that’s misandrist in practical reality.
At the same time, the child support system also condescends to women by applying crutches that were designed to solve the problems of society 70 years ago. The handouts aren’t helping our cause, ladies. We’re supposed to be wearing our big girl panties by now, remember?
It’s a piece of legislature which oppresses both men and women.
More empirically: our child support system is modeled after the needs of our society 70 years ago, not today. Families today are fluid, with a mix of genders and generations and remarriages. This binary, woman=nurturer, man=provider mentality is simply irrelevant. Single income households are not the norm anymore ; most everybody works now, in some capacity—and those capacities are expanding. Independent contracting and flexible working is replacing the rigid 9–5 more every day.
So why, then, does our legislature assume that a single parent can’t support themselves and their children once they reach school age?
And, no matter how we feel about it, neither should we.