In Defense of 'Deadbeat' Dads

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July 25 Justice
Department study
reveals that 6.9 million people – one
in 34 adults – were on probation, parole or incarcerated in
2003. This record-breaking figure has prompted calls for the removal
of nonviolent offenders from the system.

that happens, the first offenders to be removed should be “deadbeat
dads” imprisoned for defaulting on child support they cannot afford
to pay.

obstacle confronts this proposal. An amazing lack of data surrounds
some basic questions: How many “deadbeat dads” are in the correctional
system? Do they refuse to pay or are they unable to do so?

dearth of data is amazing because the “deadbeat dad” has been a
high-profile issue in politics and the media for many years. Non-payment
of child support is a significant problem in the United States.
According to the Federal Office of Child Support, in 2003, $96 billion
in accumulated unpaid support was due to children in the United
States; 68 percent of child support cases were in arrears. An overwhelming
majority of children, particularly minorities, living in single-parent
homes where child support is not paid live in poverty. Yet, many
questions about these fathers and why they fail to pay remain unanswered.

“deadbeat dad” became a priority issue on a federal level in 1975,
when President Gerald Ford created the national Office
of Child Support Enforcement
, the function of which had previously
been the purview of states.

short, for almost 30 years, an army of civil servants and government
officials have spent billions of dollars to track down “deadbeat
dads.” Yet even such basic and easily collected data as how many
have been jailed is difficult to find.

DOJ states that 2,078,570 people were
“in Federal or State prisons or in local jails”
as of June 30, 2003. The crimes for which people were incarcerated
are sorted into four categories: Violent, Property, Drug, Public-order.
There is no category for “deadbeat dads.” Indeed, the local family
courts that sentence fathers for non-payment generally do so on
“contempt of court” charges; that is, the fathers are in contempt
of a court-ordered payment. This makes their cases difficult to
sort out from other contempt charges.

my knowledge, there is no national data on the number of “deadbeat
dads” incarcerated on “contempt” for non-payment. (The group, Hunger
Strike for Justice, estimates the number at 250,000, but their figure
may well be inflated.)

of hard data, anecdotal reports abound – often in the form
of local
news items
about sentencing within a community.

numbers are important. Prison populations are growing rapidly even
as crime rates continue to sharply decline. According to the DOJ,
the number of people incarcerated rose by 130,700 or by “2.9% from
midyear 2002.” It is important to identify categories of nonviolent
prisoners whose release pose no threat to society.

who have been imprisoned because of an inability to pay are perfect
candidates for release. Indeed, their continued incarceration comes
close to establishing a de facto debtors’ prison – an institution
supposedly abolished more than 200 years ago by President Adams.

are the incarcerated fathers unable to pay? An easy “yes” or “no”
answer does not exist. Nor do reliable statistics. Again, anecdotal
information fills the vacuum.

imprisoned fathers may be able to pay but refuse to do so because
of grievances. For example, they may be withholding support until
their court-ordered visitation rights are respected.

by an imprisoned “deadbeat dad” who identifies himself
as “HeartBroken Father” is probably more common. After two heart
attacks, he became homeless. Nevertheless, he writes, “I was still
labeled a ‘deadbeat dad’ by New York State, which suspended my driver’s
license, and my professional license to practice as a Respiratory
Technologist in New York.” (Revocation of professional licenses
is standard procedure against “deadbeat dads.”)

the time HeartBroken Father had landed a minimum-wage job, he owed
$30,000 in back child support. Despite a perfect record of paying
when employed, he was sentenced to five months of consecutive weekends
in jail, at which point he lost his job.

describing the dangerous, humiliating and terrifying experience
of being imprisoned even as a “weekender,” HeartBroken Father comments,
“some judges use imprisonment … as a ‘tool,’ to pry loose hidden
funds from deadbeat dads, their friends or relatives. I think this
tactic is probably very effective, because no one that could pay
and get out would subject themselves willingly to prison.”

short, any “deadbeat dad” who endures prison is probably unable
to pay his way out. This scenario becomes more likely when you consider
that employed “deadbeat dads” have child support withheld from their
wages; employers are required to do so by law. Therefore, those
imprisoned are probably unemployed or have earnings that cannot
cover their payments.

employment prospects sink with each imprisonment, even as their
child support debt rises.

is difficult to understand what is accomplished by imprisoning such
nonviolent fathers. It is easier to understand what releasing them
accomplishes. Quite apart from humanitarian concerns, the correctional
system – especially the prison system – cannot sustain
its current growth rate. The DOJ estimates
that in 2001, “2.7% of adults in the U.S. had served time in prison,
up from 1.8% in 1991 and 1.3% in 1974.” Now the estimate is 3.2
percent. Even if society could accommodate the soaring rate of imprisonment,
the prisons themselves cannot.

some areas of the United States, incarcerated deadbeat dads are
already being released. For example, prison authorities in Macomb
, Mich., recently released “60 drug offenders, deadbeat
dads and other low-level offenders” due to overcrowding. It is time
for the release of impoverished deadbeat dads to become official
policy in every corner of North America.

5, 2004

McElroy is author of The
Reasonable Woman
See more of her work at
and at her personal website.

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