Friday, April 2, 2010

What Divorce Law is Doing to Marriage Part 39

More from the words of Jed Abraham

Inevitably, however, some courts tilted to extremes. Cases were reported of fathers with big incomes paying little support and fathers with little income paying big support. Some judges made high awards; others made low ones, all on seemingly similar facts and circumstances. Perversely, the more experience some judges had in handling child support cases, the more variable and unpredictable their rulings became.

There were some good reasons for the courts’ inconsistencies. In ordering child support, judges were influenced by background factors that the governing statutes didn’t acknowledge. If a father had other children by another woman, and he was married to her and supporting them, many judges refused to steal from Peter to pay Paul. They knew they would be inviting a sure flouting of their orders if they did. If a wife were at fault, many judges felt no harm was done in awarding less child support to her as punishment; the children wouldn’t starve, and she wouldn’t get any alimony-in-disguise-that she didn’t deserve. If she had income of her own, then all the more so. It was a kind of rough justice, but it underlined the still lingering belief that divorce was had and those who did it shouldn’t expect to get away with it.

So long as divorce was rare, the diversions of divorce courts were tolerated if only for the amusement they provided. But as divorce surged in the 1960s, many people stopped laughing and started shouting. They were joined by a chorus from a completely different quarter. The 1960s also saw a spurt of illegitimate births. Unwed mothers, mostly poor, unemployed and unemployable, turned to welfare for support. Welfare turned to fathers for reimbursement.

Welfare did not take kindly to low child support awards. If the father had another family to support, he shouldn’t do it at taxpayer expense. If the mother was at “fault” for sleeping around and not living with the father, the State sure wasn’t, and the State wasn’t going to take anything less than everything it could get back from the father for supporting his child. The State’s indignation did not extend to getting reimbursement from the mother, she deemed to be supporting the child directly by providing services in kind.

From divorced middle-and upper-class mothers, who weren’t getting alimony, to Uncle Sam, who wasn’t getting reimbursed for underwriting lower-class single motherhood, the cry went up that something had to be done about getting fathers to pay more child support. It was the perfect political issue, fusing the perfect victim to the perfect villain. The cry was framed to bewail all the poor little needy children who were being cheated by all those big bad deadbeat dads. Child support was a national scandal. Most fathers never paid a penny. As a result, most single mothers were poor. But the poor, poor children were the ones who suffered the most.

And the cry reached the halls of Congress, and Congress heeded the call. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the federal government intruded itself ever more deeply into child support law and administration. Under threat of withholding federal money from the states that did not comply, it forced one state after another to set up rigid bureaucratic collection process according to strict federal formulae, and it made all states pass statutes that reduced the discretion of the courts in the setting and modification of support awards. It made the states pass the guidelines.

The guidelines were supposed to close the gap between what fathers theoretically could afford and what they were actually ordered to pay by the courts. The guidelines were supposed to bring uniformity and fairness to child support awards. Similarly situated fathers would pay the same fair percentage of their incomes to support their children.

But the devil was in the details. There were no reliable studies on how much divorced families spend on their children. So the next best thing was used: studies of how much intact families spend on their children. But there were serious problems with these studies. No one knew for sure how common goods and services, such as food, housing, and utilities are distributed among parents and children in a household. And, no one knew for sure how to account for savings: If parents save now in order to provide for their children later, should the act of saving now be considered an expense now or later?

In the absence of reliable information, simplified estimates were attempted. Total household expenses were divided by total household members-parents and children-to arrive at average expenses per person in the household. But this method, which, by simple arithmetic made the expenses of a child equal to the expenses of a parent, exaggerated the expenses of the child. Other estimates were tried. Researchers gauged how much food is consumed by families with children compared to families without children. From the difference, they extrapolated the total extra cost of children to a family. But this method, too, had flaws. It assumed the parent/child food ratio is the same for all other expenses, which did not seem to be the case. And it assumed that divorced fathers don’t eat out more than married fathers, which also did not seem to be the case. Still other methods were employed. The result was a range of estimates that was very wide.

More on “Child Support” on the next summary