July 18, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
This little piece demonstrates again the way fathers are marginalized by the mainstream news media. It’s an advice column with the emphasis on financial advice (The Daily Herald, 7/17/14). The writer, Michelle Singletary invites people to write in with their money-related quandaries which she then addresses. This time the woman who sought her advice had a child support problem. Her ex had fallen behind over the years so she took him to court. This apparently upset her teenage son and drove a wedge between them. Here’s what Singletary had to say:
The background: When those payments became $40,000 in arrears, the reader said she decided to take the father to court.
“The judge said if he did not pay up, then she would arrest him,” wrote the woman, who asked not to be identified. “She asked me if I wanted him to go to jail and I said ‘no.’ I needed him to work. “
The issue of nonpayment continued over the years. “I don’t know how many times he was in contempt of court,” she wrote.
The conflict: “What makes me so sad is that my son is very antagonistic toward me for involving the court so much,” she wrote. “I had to do it quite often because the amount owed would build up and it was very difficult to go without the money for very long.”
The mother added: “I did not believe at the time it was appropriate to discuss these kinds of things in detail with the children, only generalities. ... But I acknowledge the pain my son/children felt growing up in two households with parents who could not get along. I cannot correct anything that happened so many years ago. I love my son very much and want to have a healthy relationship with him. How can I reconcile my actions of the past with what he is carrying in the present?”
I’ve worked with a number of parents, all women, who were reluctant to seek court intervention for child support for fear of just what happened to the mother who wrote me. Or they were concerned that whatever civil relations they did have with their ex would deteriorate if courts became involved. Sometimes they were right. Things got ugly when they pursued formal child support agreements.
One thing everyone involved in child support cases should keep in mind — parents and especially the courts — the more contact a child has with the noncustodial parent, the more likely full child support payments are made, the Census report found.
The bottom line: If you’re in a fight with an ex over child support, you shouldn’t involve the children. And yet we know, even in situations where the parents try to keep their fiscal issues and conflicts off to the side, the kids will sense the tension. They are often damaged by the battles. And sometimes they pick sides.
But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight for the money you need to support your children, whether you are the father or mother. You shouldn’t feel guilty for doing what you needed to do to provide for your child’s basic needs.
All of that is fair enough, as far as it goes. It’s particularly important that Singletary pointed out that non-custodial parents whose visitation is honored are far more likely to pay what they owe than those who have to fight to see their kids. That’s been known since at least the mid-90s, even though courts and legislatures don’t seem to have absorbed the lesson yet.
But now here’s the context Singletary put the whole thing in:
Failure to pay child support is a big problem nationwide. A report released last year by the Census Bureau showed in 2011, more than $14 billion in child support payments to custodial parents was not received. Astoundingly, only 43 percent of the parents got all the money they were due.
“In 2011, the 6.3 million custodial parents who were due child support under the terms of legal awards or informal agreements were due an annual mean average of $6,050, or approximately $500 per month,” the Census report said.
The overwhelming majority of custodial parents were women, with many living in poverty.
In 2012, 26.1 percent of all custodial parents had at some point contacted a child support enforcement office or other government office for child support-related assistance, down from 42.2 percent in 1994, according to the Census Bureau.
Singletary uses a woman’s complaint about her ex-husband and the reference to custodial mothers living in poverty to suggest that fathers’ failure to pay everything they owe causes single-mother poverty. But there’s little to no evidence for the proposition.
The facts that Singletary carefully omits are many. They include things like the fact that, although custodial mothers and custodial fathers face the same hardships, those fathers manage to earn over 50% more than do the mothers. The result is that the poverty rate for custodial fathers is half that of custodial mothers.
Is that because non-custodial mothers are better at paying the support they owe, thus lifting the dads out of poverty? Far from it. In fact, non-custodial mothers are rarely ordered to pay support at all. Under 29% of them are versus 54% of non-custodial fathers. Plus, those mothers are ordered to pay substantially less than are the dads and pay a smaller percentage of what they’re ordered to pay. So fathers’ inability or refusal to pay child support can’t be the reason those custodial mothers have such a tendency to live on the ragged edge of poverty.
Just like the wage gap between men and women generally, the wage gap between custodial fathers and mothers is a function of two major phenomena; men tend to work more hours at paid work and tend to work at higher paying jobs than do women.
Meanwhile, Singletary doesn’t mention the fact, repeatedly stated by the Office of Child Support Enforcement, that judges set child support orders higher than non-custodial parents can pay. Gone from her piece is the fact that 63% of parents who are behind on their payments report incomes of under $10,000 per year. The woman who wrote to her didn’t tell her and Singletary didn’t ask just what her ex’s financial situation is, but from the sound of it, he’s strapped. Neither did Singletary inquire as to how Mom makes her living. Does she rely on those payments to support her as well as the child?
“She asked me if I wanted him to go to jail and I said ‘no.’ I needed him to work.”
Singletary and the Washington Post do no one any favors by pretending that the child support system is in some way unfair to mothers. Fathers across the board do a better job of paying support than do mothers and no one should depend on child support for their livelihood. The system of child support should be radically changed and the best place to start would be with equally shared parenting. That wouldn’t do away with child support altogether, but, with each parent having the child about equal amounts of time, it would drastically cut down on the grossly inflated amounts parents are ordered to pay irrespective of their ability to do so. More importantly, when each parent sees his/her child regularly and about equally, the impetus to restrict “visitation” is reduced, animosity is reduced and what child support is owed is more likely to be paid.
That may not be a perfect system, but it’s far better than the one we have now that encourages mothers to reduce their earnings, penalizes fathers, ignores visitation rights and throws parents into jail where they’re no good to anyone.
I encourage Michelle Singletary to take note.
National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization
National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved? Here’s how:
Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.
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