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Fathers Under Fire

Fathers Under Fire: The Revolution in Child Support Enforcement

Irwin Garfinkel
Sara S. McLanahan
Daniel R. Meyer
Judith A. Seltzer
Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Fathers Under Fire
    Book Description:

    "This important and highly informative collection of studies on nonresidentfathers and child support should be of great value to scholars and policymakers alike." -American Journal of Sociology

    Over half of America's children will live apart from their fathers at some point as they grow up, many in the single-mother households that increasingly make up the nation's poor. Federal efforts to improve the collection of child support from fathers appear to have little effect on payments, and many critics have argued that forcing fathers to pay does more harm than good. Much of the uncertainty surrounding child support policies has stemmed from a lack of hard data on nonresident fathers.Fathers Under Firepresents the best available information on the financial and social circumstances of the men who are at the center of the debate. In this volume, social scientists and legal scholars explore the issues underlying the child support debate, chief among them on the potential repercussions of stronger enforcement.

    Who are nonresident fathers? This volume calls upon both empirical and theoretical data to describe them across a broad economic and social spectrum. Absentee fathers who do not pay child support are much more likely to be school dropouts and low earners than fathers who pay, and nonresident fathers altogether earn less than resident fathers. Fathers who start new families are not significantly less likely to support previous children. But can we predict what would happen if the government were to impose more rigorous child support laws? The data in this volume offer a clearer understanding of the potential benefits and risks of such policies. In contrast to some fears, stronger enforcement is unlikely to push fathers toward. But it does seem to have more of an effect on whether some fathers remarry and become responsible for new families. In these cases, how are subsequent children affected by a father's pre-existing obligations? Should such fathers be allowed to reduce their child support orders in order to provide for their current families? Should child support guidelines permit modifications in the event of a father's changed financial circumstances? Should government enforce a father's right to see his children as well as his obligation to pay support? What can be done to help under- or unemployed fathers meet their payments? This volume provides the information and insight to answer these questions.

    The need to help children and reduce the public costs of welfare programs is clear, but the process of achieving these goals is more complex.Fathers Under Fireoffers an indispensable resource to those searching for effective and equitable solutions to the problems of child support.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-240-4
    Subjects: Sociology, Law

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Contributors
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Conference Participants
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    Irwin Garfinkel, Sara S. McLanahan, Daniel R. Meyer and Judith A. Seltzer
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)
    Irwin Garfinkel, Sara S. McLanahan, Daniel R. Meyer and Judith A. Seltzer

    The American family has undergone a dramatic restructuring during the past four decades. At the beginning of the 1950s, a large majority of children in the United States lived with both of their biological parents from the time they were born to the age of maturity. Only one of five children born in the 1950s lived apart from their father before reaching adulthood.¹ Today the picture is dramatically different. Over 50 percent of children will live apart from at least one of their parents, usually the father,² before reaching adulthood (Bumpass 1984; Bumpass and Sweet 1989). These changes represent a...


    • [Part I Introduction]
      (pp. 11-13)

      The chapters in this part ask whether our current child support policies are consistent with fathers’ capabilities and responsibilities. In chapter 1, Irwin Garfinkel, Daniel Meyer, and Sara McLanahan provide a brief history of social policies for nonresident fathers. Prior to the 1940s, the vast majority of single mothers were widows, and thus it made sense that protecting them and their children from poverty and economic insecurity was a public responsibility. After 1960, however, in response to soaring divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates and rising public expenditures, policy-makers began to reassess their policies and to try to shift more of...

    • Chapter 1 A Brief History of Child Support Policies in the United States
      (pp. 14-30)
      Irwin Garfinkel, Daniel R. Meyer and Sara S. McLanahan

      Throughout the history of the United States, some children have lived apart from their fathers, and government has always assumed at least some responsibility for these children. One mechanism that has protected children from the economic consequences of the loss of a father is the private child support system, which is regulated by state law. Another mechanism is the public assistance system—or welfare system—which provides cash support to poor children who live apart from their fathers and which may pursue private child support on behalf of the child. During the past twenty-five years, the federal government has taken...

    • Chapter 2 A Patchwork Portrait of Nonresident Fathers
      (pp. 31-60)
      Irwin Garfinkel, Sara S. McLanahan and Thomas L. Hanson

      Nonresident fathers who fail to pay child support are often depicted in the media either as wealthy scoundrels who go to great lengths to escape their parental responsibility or as penniless victims who are willing but unable to support their children. Still others describe these fathers as men with serious drug and alcohol problems who are potentially dangerous to mothers and children. While cases such as these can be found in every community, most nonpaying fathers probably do not fit any of these stereotypes. More likely, their incomes fall somewhere in between extreme poverty and wealth and their personality flaws...


    • [Part II Introduction]
      (pp. 61-66)

      The five chapters in this part investigate some potential side effects of rigorous child support enforcement. The authors pay particular attention to whether heightened enforcement produces a different reaction among low-income fathers, whose financial circumstances limit their ability to pay child support, than among higher-income fathers.

      Chapter 3 examines whether stronger enforcement is likely to reduce the standard of living and increase poverty rates in fathers’ new families. Chapters 4 through 7 investigate possible behavioral responses of nonresident fathers, including whether stronger child support enforcement is likely to reduce fathers’ laborforce participation and the number of hours they work (chapter...

    • Chapter 3 The Effect of Child Support on the Economic Status of Nonresident Fathers
      (pp. 67-93)
      Daniel R. Meyer

      Children in mother-only families are in severe economic straits, with poverty rates near 50 percent (Baugher and Lamison-White 1996). This fact, along with a growing public dissatisfaction with welfare expenditures on mother-only families, has spurred scrutiny of the child support system to determine whether nonresident parents (mostly fathers) are providing appropriate amounts of financial support to their children. One of the results of this scrutiny has been the introduction of significant reforms in the child support system. Some of the changes are aimed at increasing the amount of child support that is owed. Each state has now developed a numerical...

    • Chapter 4 Does Child Support Enforcement Policy Affect Male Labor Supply?
      (pp. 94-127)
      Richard B. Freeman and Jane Waldfogel

      Since the mid-1970s, the U.S. government has tried to increase child support payments from noncustodial parents. Originally, the federal effort concentrated on the fathers of children receiving cash assistance (known in this period as Aid to Families with Dependent Children [AFDC], after 1996 as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families [TANF]). The goal was to save on the welfare budget and to make these men responsible for the children they had fathered. In 1984 federal legislation required states to provide child support enforcement services for non-AFDC families as well. In 1988 the federal government required states to make a greater effort...

    • Chapter 5 Child Support and Fathers’ Remarriage and Fertility
      (pp. 128-156)
      David E. Bloom, Cecilia Conrad and Cynthia Miller

      In 1995 one in four children in the United States lived in poverty. The child poverty rate increased steadily during the 1980s, and this increase can be attributed in large part to a rise in the number of children living in female-headed families (Bane and Ellwood 1989; Lerman 1996). More than 50 percent of all children in female-headed families live in poverty. Children in these families must rely on the income of only one parent, and the income of the mother is typically lower than that of the absent father.

      This relationship between trends in family structure and child poverty...

    • Chapter 6 Will Child Support Enforcement Increase Father-Child Contact and Parental Conflict After Separation?
      (pp. 157-190)
      Judith A. Seltzer, Sara S. McLanahan and Thomas L. Hanson

      Parents who live with their children contribute to their offsprings’ welfare by spending time with them and spending money on them. When parents live together, they must balance competing demands and limited resources to decide what mix of time and money to devote to their children. When they live in separate households, they must also balance competing demands, but agreements about these matters are more costly to reach and more difficult to sustain.

      Recent changes in the child support system have altered the context in which parents who live apart make decisions about allocating time and money to their children....

    • Chapter 7 The Effects of Stronger Child Support Enforcement on Nonmarital Fertility
      (pp. 191-215)
      Anne Case

      The last twenty years have witnessed fundamental change in child support enforcement in the United States. The Child Support Enforcement (CSE) program, added as part D to Title IV of the Social Security Act in 1975, provided federal backing for state programs designed to locate absent parents, establish paternity and child support orders, and obtain payments.¹ The states’ obligation to child support was increased with the passage of the 1984 CSE amendments, which required withholding of support payments from the paychecks and tax refunds of parents delinquent in their support, and which also required states to establish guidelines to be...


    • [Part III Introduction]
      (pp. 216-219)

      The final chapters address the question of whether we should be doing more to help fathers meet their obligations. Two chapters focus on specific demonstrations designed to help fathers who are denied access to their children and to help poor fathers meet their child support obligations. The last chapter takes a step back and uses political and legal theory to assess our current policies toward poor fathers and fathers with second families.

      In chapter 8, Jessica Pearson and Nancy Thoennes describe the results of two studies of programs designed to improve nonresident parents’ access to their children. The first study...

    • Chapter 8 Programs to Increase Fathers’ Access to Their Children
      (pp. 220-252)
      Jessica Pearson and Nancy Thoennes

      The 1984 Child Support Enforcement amendments, the Family Support Act (FSA) of 1988, and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 have vastly increased the attention being paid to the issue of child support and the enhancement of the financial well-being of children. Under the new legislation, courts and child support agencies are required to use aggressive techniques to establish paternity, establish and update orders using guidelines that more accurately reflect the costs of raising children, and enforce child support orders using automatic wage-withholding procedures and other mass case-processing techniques like tax intercepts, driver’s license suspensions,...

    • Chapter 9 Low-Income Parents and the Parents’ Fair Share Program: An Early Qualitative Look at Improving the Ability and Desire of Low-Income Noncustodial Parents to Pay Child Support
      (pp. 253-301)
      Earl S. Johnson and Fred Doolittle

      In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the failure of many non-custodial parents to meet their parental obligations and a steady effort to tighten child support enforcement. This trend has continued into the current debate on welfare, where there is a surprising political consensus about the importance of the issue. Exemplifying this consensus, theNew York Timesreported on June 18, 1995, that “Eleanor Holmes Norton, a liberal female, and Pete Wilson, a conservative male, both stood up and said that fatherlessness is the [number] one problem in the United States of America.”

      In this context, the...

    • Chapter 10 How Should We Think About Child Support Obligations?
      (pp. 302-330)
      Martha Minow

      The dramatic increase in rigorous enforcement of laws requiring nonresident parents to support their children financially reflects what seems to be a remarkable degree of consensus about a fundamental norm.¹ People who produce children should provide for their support. Yet vigorous enforcement has also exposed to view many questions that are not resolved by reference to that simple norm.² Two persistent questions are unanswered by the basic commitment to enforce child support obligations, and a discussion of these questions can help to illuminate the scope—and limitations—of prevailing normative approaches to issues of law and public policy.

      The first...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 331-344)
    Irwin Garfinkel, Sara S. McLanahan, Daniel R. Meyer and Judith A. Seltzer

    During the last twenty-five years, federal and state governments have enacted increasingly strong legislation to compel nonresident fathers to pay child support. This legislative thrust has been supported by two research streams, one depicting the plight of single mothers and their children and the other documenting the ability of nonresident fathers to pay substantially more child support. In the popular media, fathers who fail to pay child support have been labeled “deadbeat dads.” Child support enforcement has gained widespread political support because of its potential both to reduce public welfare expenditures and to improve the economic security of single mothers...

  11. Index
    (pp. 345-351)