Revolution: Economic Impacts on Women and Children. This book expounded on an earlier Weitzman research project that demonstrated women suffered a 73% decline in their standard of living after divorce while men experienced a 42% increase. That’s an astounding differential.
It’s common practice in the social sciences community for researchers to release their data sets along with the results of their studies. This is useful for other researchers so they can evaluate information in light of their own work and also confirm or extract additional insights based on the data sets. In this case, researcher Weitzman refused to release her data for over 12 years. Other researcher’s began expressing doubts about the validity of the conclusions of her results as they were unable to replicate the results. When Weitzman’s data was ultimately released it turns out she had miscalculated the data and her conclusions were staggeringly wrong.
Just how wrong were her conclusions? According to researchers and authors Dr. Sanford Braver and Diane O’Connell, in their book: ‘Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths’ once tax and other benefits are factored into the equation there is virtually no difference in the actual standards of living for mothers and fathers after divorce. Neither mothers nor fathers see post divorce improvements in their standards of living.
It’s one thing to issue research that has no impact outside of the community of researchers, but such was not the case with Weitzman’s work. Its influence on policy development around child support was monumental. According to Richard Peterson, a sociologist who finally acquired and reran her data, a 1996 Nexis database search showed the results had been referenced in 175 newspaper articles, 348 social science journal articles, 250 law review articles and 24 appellate and Supreme Court decisions.v It’s one thing to be wrong, it’s quite another to be wrong and have your results be a primary driver for a massive government social program.
By the late 1980’s the federal government began taking a much more active role in child support. It hired a consultant, who today runs one of the largest private collection agencies in the nation, to work on developing the child support guidelines that have become the hallmark of the present child support system. Estimates indicate these guidelines resulted in child support awards that were 2 – 4 times higher than previous awards. What we were seeing was the development of a solution searching for a problem.
The fundamental economic premise driving development of these new guidelines, which were to be applied at all income levels, was “children of divorce should not have a standard of living that is less than the one they would have enjoyed had their parents remained married.” While the sentiment might be nice, the reality for all but the wealthiest is that it is not feasible to support two households on the same income that formerly supported one. Yet over twenty years after the development of these guidelines, as unsound as it is, that premise remains the pole star for child support guidelines and regulations.
The federal government began offering extensive subsidies and reimbursement to the states to ‘encourage’ them to accept the new program mandates. The mother of all massive changes to the modern child support system occurred in 1996 with the PRWORA (welfare reform) act signed by President Clinton. This act expanded the child support program to a level previously unknown in the history of the nation. The argument went something like this: If we are going to limit the duration of time mothers receive welfare we are going to have to increase child support enforcement efforts to make up for the lost benefits as mothers leave the welfare rolls.
Over the next several years new collection enforcement techniques were implemented which included punitive measures like incarceration for non‐payment, drivers and professional license suspension, asset seizures and wage withholding orders so support would be taken directly from an obligors paycheck. Toward the end of the decade laws were promulgated at the federal level which required the implementation of massive computer tracking systems, centralized payment and dispersal systems, a new hires registry to track all new employees and unprecedented interagency and private business reporting on the financial affairs of all American citizens ordered to pay support.
Tremendous debates took place in Congress over the necessity and legality of requiring states to implement what are essentially citizen tracking and monitoring systems. All of this was done under the threat of withholding federal dollars to the state if the states failed to comply. A number of child support enforcement leaders complained Congress was essentially creating a system that would draw the middle class into it in ways which had never been intended. State child support directors testified the way to game the system and generate the greatest financial windfalls for the state was to focus on generating middle class child support orders with less attention on the lower income cases for which the system was originally designed.vi President Gerald Ford’s concerns for citizen privacy expressed in the 1970’s were being realized in the 1990’s. And the system continues its expansion.
During this time period part of the incentive formula paid to states was a percentage ‘bonus’ on each dollar of support collected. The bonus ranged from 6% to 10% of each dollar collected depending on the characterization of the dollar. It doesn’t take long, or require a rocket science degree, to understand that if you bring more middle class payers into the system, your state picks up more money from the feds. It also doesn’t take much to see that the higher the child support award, the greater the amount of money that passes through the system leading to the greater incentive payment to the state. The incentive system to the states changed about a decade ago with the passage of the Child Support Performance Incentive Act. This is the foundation on which the current child support system is built.
How the Child Support System Impacts Child Custody
There are a couple of other points you should be aware of when it comes to the child support system. While you are required to pay support there is no corresponding requirement that the support money be spent on your children. Also, at this point child support is more accurately called lifestyle support given that the guidelines are based on the parent(s) income, not on the actual basic costs associated with raising a child.
Further, one of the unstated reasons fathers get so little time with their children is that increasing their time may result in a lowered support obligation which would mean less money to mom. States receive fewer incentive and reimbursement dollars as fewer dollars flow through the system. It is outrageous that our nation’s children are being denied relationships with their fathers’ in order to assure the most money possible passes through the system. At this point I’m sure you’re beginning to see how the system is completely stacked against a non‐custodial/non‐primary residential parent having a full and equal relationship with the children.
What incentive would the state have in assuring kids a full relationship with both parents if the state is going to realize less money for doing so?
You might be asking how the state could be so callous and put its revenue considerations above all else. After all, the standard to be applied when determining custody is supposed to be the best interest of the child. How would the state make its money if it gave similarly situated parents equal time and there were fewer child support awards? So what happens?
Special interest groups protect the family court by perpetuating the myth that the only reason a father would want to be with his kids is to pay less child support. That’s about as offensive as saying mothers only want custody of the children to get a check. Neither is true, then again family law is not generally about the truth, or about the best interest of the children, but about perpetuating the business of family law.
The child support agencies themselves generate a tremendous amount of one‐sided information through their own press operations. We’ve all seen the deadbeat dad roundups. They make great TV, but the reality is they accomplish very little. Why should the public waste limited resources chasing poor people when its sheriff and police departments ought to be addressing real criminal activity? Roundups are simply a demonstration of the unbridled power of the state over the most intimate details of citizens’ lives. As Terrebonne, Louisiana District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. says the arrests are part of a last‐ditch effort to get delinquent parents to do their duty.
“We have tried, but there is no money anyway,” Waitz said. “We want to give them a taste of jail. It sends a strong message. Maybe not to (those arrested), but to those who are on the fence about paying.”
The child support industry is responsible for the return of debtor’s prisons to America. The practice of incarcerating people who have no ability to pay money was outlawed in the United States in the 1830’s. However with the enactment of United States Code Section 42 USC 666 the practice of incarceration for non‐payment of support was reintroduced. On any given day in the United States it is estimated several tens of thousands of individuals are sitting in jails and prisons because they are simply too poor to pay child support. So outrageous and widespread has this practice become that the United States Supreme Court heard the case of Turner v. Price rendering a decision in June of 2011 that once again reaffirmed the ban on incarcerating people too poor to pay support. Despite this, the practice of jailing indigents continues.
John’s story illustrates all too often what happens in this system. John first reached out in 2008. His email said: “I’d like you to use my case as an example of how broken the system is in…We have presented evidence to DCSE (child support), but they choose to ignore it. I have terminal cancer and am missing possibly my last visitation with my son due to these proceedings. How does jailing me seem justified?” John was jailed. Here is the even crazier part of his case. He and his ex‐wife reached agreement on how much he would pay her. She didn’t want any more money from him. John was a big fellow who trained horses. When he appeared before the judge he didn’t look like a man who was dying. Even though John and his ex had settled their child support issues the court refused to honor their agreement and jailed John anyway. Why? Because the state makes money whether John is paying support or sitting in jail.
The state was unwilling to let go of a man until they squeezed a few more dollars from his dying hands.viii In June of 2009 another email arrived. John had lost his battle with cancer while the courts kept a death grip on him until the very end. John’s case demonstrates what can happen on the individual level. It would be easy to dismiss John’s case as an aberration. With over 25,000 people in jail it’s hard to write off John’s case as a ‘one off’ situation.
How do the child support and child custody systems work together to prevent children from having a full relationship with both parents? Here’s another example, in 2006 a young man named Mitchell Sanderson spearheaded an initiative to put shared parenting on the ballot in North Dakota. Mitch and his fellow citizens from the North Dakota Shared Parenting Initiative gathered over 12,000 signatures and the measure made it to the ballot.
Alarmed at the initiative’s strong public support, North Dakota’s Health and Human Services agency (the agency that collects child support in ND), along with the bar association and the domestic violence coalitions went on the attack. The child support agency argued that enacting shared parenting would jeopardize federal funds to the state. In a nutshell the state argued that giving children a full relationship with both parents would put North Dakota’s child support program out of compliance with federal regulations and cause the state to immediately forfeit several tens of millions of dollars in federal funds over a two year period.
The state found a federal regional program director willing to write a letter supporting that position. A subsequent letter from the acting Deputy Secretary in Washington, DC clarifying the issue indicated the state position and regional director’s claims regarding immediate loss of funding were inaccurate. However the damage to what was the most widely discussed and debated measure on the 2006 North Dakota ballot had been done.