The Deadbeat Dad's Dilemma

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Everyone
knows about “those men” – those balding corporate executives who
buy a red convertible and run off with the bombshell secretary,
leaving their ex-wife and children high and dry.

In
fact, the truth is quite the opposite. The typical “deadbeat dad”
is a blue-collar guy, sometimes without a job, whose wife initiated
the divorce because she didn’t feel “fulfilled” in the relationship.

In
its frenzy to make sure divorced fathers pay, the US Congress has
granted the Office of Child Support Enforcement a broad range of
police powers. These strong-arm tactics include garnishing a man’s
paycheck, revoking his driver’s license, and sending him to the
modern-day equivalent of a debtor’s prison.

According to a chilling exposé in the June issue of Men’s
Health Magazine, on any given day about 15,000 American men are
in the slammer for falling behind on child support payments. How
they are supposed to earn money while they are in jail, no one seems
to know.

Take
Bobby Sherrill, for example. He was working on contract to the Kuwaiti
military in 1990. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August, they took
Sherrill hostage. Four months later, he was released. When he came
home to Fayetteville, NC, he expected a hero’s welcome. Instead,
the child support goons arrested him for failure to pay child support
during his captivity.

Or
consider Derek Harvey, a landscaper in Baltimore. Three months after
he broke up with his girlfriend, his 3 children showed up on his
doorstep in the middle of the night. Now Harvey takes care of his
kids. But the child support bills keep coming. And he keeps paying,
knowing the likely result of being tagged with the “deadbeat” epithet.

Some
fathers crack under the pressure. According to a 2000 study published
in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, divorced men
were more than twice as likely to commit suicide as married men,
and almost 10 times more likely to kill themselves as divorced women.

Much
of the problem can be traced to the arithmetic used to calculate
the payments. Back in the 1980s, Robert Williams was hired by the
federal government to come up with a formula to figure how much
fathers in various income brackets would have to pay. Then Williams
created his own company, Policy Studies, Inc., to track down the
deadbeats and receive a cut of the take.

But
there’s a basic conflict of interest at work here – the higher
the guidelines that Williams sets, the bigger the profits that flow
to his company. That’s like telling the IRS that they can increase
their agency’s budget by jimmying the tax rate charts.

So
Jim Taylor of Richmond, Virginia, who earns a respectable $5,000
a month, is saddled with payments of $2,000. Even though his 3 sons
spend half their time with him, Taylor’s child support burden remains
the same. As a result, he does not have the money to buy clothes
for his kids or take them on a vacation.

So
Taylor faced the essential dilemma of divorced dads: Should he put
in more hours at work – and devote less time with his kids – in
order to make ends meet? Or should he spend more time, and thus
more expenses, with his kids, thus risking the poorhouse and even
the jailhouse?

Taylor
opted for the second choice. He eventually had to file for bankruptcy
and moved in with his grandmother.

When
the Office of Child Support Enforcement was first established in
1975, its advocates justified this intrusive experiment of centralized
government with the promise that dads would now stay involved with
their children.

But
in reality, it is forcing fathers to choose between the workhouse
and the jailhouse. That is a choice that no parent should have to
make.

June
10, 2003

Carey
Roberts [send him mail]
is a researcher and consultant who tracks gender bias in the mainstream
media.


     

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