Fallible Feminists And Deadbeat Dads by John P. Rooney, J.D.

© 2001 John P. Rooney

Used with permission of the author.

Presented April, 1999, at 13 th Round Table on Law & Semiotics.


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Propaganda has led to changes in the law of collecting child support. The public became convinced that there were lots of "deadbeat dads" and that all or most of the adjudicated support could be collected if we, the country, got serious about enforcement.

A second result of mass communications is the widely held belief that divorced men prosper and their ex-wives live in penury. It is not as clear that this belief has affected the level of support awarded. Perhaps this is because lawmakers, if not the public, have learned that it is not so.

The second belief got a boost if not its start from a 1985 book called The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America. The author, Lenore Weitzman, claimed that divorced women suffered a 73% decline in their standard of living, while men's standards went up 42%. Feminists responded by urging higher support awards and even a percentage of the ex-husband's future earnings. Furthermore, Weitzman and other feminists opposed shared custody because it would result in smaller support obligations.

The divorce revolution to which Weitzman's title alluded had legalized no-fault divorce and the virtual elimination of alimony. Previously the theory of marriage had been that the wife traded her property for a husband's obligation of lifelong support. This obligation continued after divorce as alimony. The divorce revolution authorized the division of the couple's property more or less as though a business partnership had dissolved. In reality, pre-revolution divorces had often been settled on a basis of giving all or most of the property to the woman in exchange for eliminating alimony. Alimony ended if the ex-wife died or remarried, so the ex-husband had reason to want his former wife to find a new man.

In recent times women have been aware that they should cultivate a career and preserve job skills. Marriage no longer includes an expectation of lifelong support. If a wife's husband has superior earning power, she may be living better than she deserves, like a rock star's current groupie.

An earlier generation had a different expectation, a career as a homemaker. In the 19 th Century if there was to be a divorce, the father kept the children and the associated costs of supporting them. Nowadays a mother may seek custody in order to maximize the amount the father will be commanded to pay her. Conceivably mom could provide for the children while they were with her and dad likewise would feed them while he had them. Arguably no child support money would be awarded if each parent had the child half the time.

The figure of "Deadbeat Dads" has become part of the folk culture and common wisdom in recent years. Everyone "knew" that divorced fathers had abandoned their children physically and financially. However the most serious and substantial scientific study, Braver (with O'Connell, 1998), of these fathers concluded that what everyone "knew" was not true.

One mistake that has led to mistaken beliefs is to lump divorced fathers and unwed fathers.

Another source of error was to ask only the mothers what the facts as to support payments were.

A third source of error stemmed from ignoring payments not made through official channels.

Braver's research was done in Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona, where payments are supposed to go through the court clerk's computer. But the clerk would not initiate a complaint and, if a mother complained, a father could prove what he'd paid. (N.B. there have been cases where fathers were not given credit for amounts not paid through the clerk.) The people Braver interviewed on average claimed to have paid the custodial parent directly more often than not. Only 28 percent of the couples agreed that all moneys had been paid through the clerk. (N.B. payment into court will be insisted on when the mother is receiving "welfare" ).

Braver's researchers asked both parents how much had been paid. The mothers, as a group, reported receiving 74% of the amount awarded. Those who said they had not been paid in full, nevertheless on average had received half of what was owed. The corresponding fathers reported having paid almost 60%.

Blending in the fathers who paid in full, the rate of self-reported compliance was over 90% of the court-ordered sums.

In interviews conducted three years after the commencement of divorce proceedings, compliance had declined slightly.

If Congress had been told how compliant fathers were or claimed to be, "we would not be spending the billions that we are in child-support enforcement" (Braver, 1998, p 32). Instead, the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement employs 55,000 workers and spends $4 billion a year (Braver, 1998, p. 36).

Braver also investigated why fathers don't pay. Were they willful or unable? Fully employed fathers all said that they paid 100% of what was owed. The mothers said it was 80%.

Congress and the states thought that the Deadbeat Dads could be forced to pay but much more has been spent by the public than has been collected. Florida paid private collection companies $4.5 million in 1998. They managed to collect $162,000.

According to columnist Kathleen Parker, the collectors concluded that the obligors were usually broke. Sometimes the payor is on relief! She goes on to say that fathers with joint custody pay 90% (see Braver, 1998, p. 194) and fathers with visitation pay 79% according to the Census Bureau.

Congress in 1975 required states to develop child support enforcement programs. The Child Support Recovery Act of 1992 made it a crime to flee across state lines in order to avoid child support payments. The welfare reform of 1996, Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, reduces welfare checks if the mother does not tell the authorities who the father is. Clearly this relates to unwed fathers.

Some states revoke driver's licenses and professional licenses, e.g., M.C.L. 552.628(1). Michigan also requires employers to withhold sums for child support. The traditional method of motivating willful non-payors was to bring contempt of court charges. The contemnor may be jailed. Tax refunds to non-payors are now intercepted.

When Wisconsin experimented with mandatory wage withholding, the ten counties doing so only collected 3% more than the ten counties which did not use withholding.

What does Braver have to say about Weitzman's book? Professional researchers thought her numbers had to be wrong (Braver, 1998, p. 59) . But only Weitzman's numbers were widely publicized, perhaps because they would be shocking if true. Braver claims that Weitzman simply misread her arithmetic. Her data actually showed only a 27% drop, the mothers' "standard of living" had become 73% of what it had been before the divorce, a far cry from the reverse Weitzman claimed.

Braver attributes this demonstration of arithmetic error to Richard Peterson (Braver, 1998, p. 61). Using Weitzman's computer files and paper records, Peterson recalculated her results. These were impossible to see for years after her book, years during which her false numbers had become common knowledge. Peterson also computed that fathers' "standard of living" had increased 10% not 42% according to his calculation from Weitzman's raw data. When Weitzman was asked to comment on Peterson's article, she conceded that she had erred. This was in 1996, eleven years after her book. Braver had suggested this to her in 1989. Feminists preferred to believe Weitzman's numbers rather than what other researchers concluded because they wanted women to be victims (Braver, 1998, p. 62).

Braver goes on to challenge Weitzman's assumptions as to "standard of living." In particular he evaluates various income tax effects (Braver. 1998, p. 68). He also discusses how Arizona adjusted its child support guidelines. In the interest of equity, states have recently concocted formulas with which to determine child support on the basis of time spent with each parent and the parents' incomes.

In the end, Braver (1998, p. 79) concludes that the parents' standard of living is virtually unchanged. A far less dramatic, but more accurate, result.


John P. Rooney is an Emeritus Professor of Law at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan.



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| Chapter 6 — Fathers And Mothers Today |

| Next — What Have Feminists Done to America's Fathers? by Phyllis Schlafly |

| Back — Playing Politics With The Federal Fatherhood Initiative by Carey Roberts |


Last modified 4/11/15