Child Support System Ignores Dads’ Economic Reality

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

The Chicago Sun-Times article “State’s deadbeat dads owe $3 billion” (4/8/07) powerfully depicts the economic struggles some custodial mothers face after divorce. Unfortunately, the article’s simplistic portrayal of divorced moms as long-suffering saints and divorced dads as deadbeats misses a great deal about the realities of divorce and child support in Illinois.

The article draws from and refers readers to Illinois Child Support Enforcement’s “deadbeats” page. This “deadbeats” page provides a wide array of details about the 130 Illinois fathers and mothers who have child support arrearages of $5,000 or more. However, the state chose to omit one very important piece of information–the alleged deadbeats’ occupations. Had the state listed these, it would be very apparent that most of the parents listed are not “deadbeats,” but are instead low-income men and women who were unable to meet the rigid and unrealistic demands of the child support system.

Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement data shows that two-thirds of those behind on child support nationwide earn poverty level wages; less than four percent of the national child support debt is owed by those earning $40,000 or more a year. According to the largest federally-funded study of divorced dads ever conducted, unemployment, not willful neglect, is the largest cause of failure to pay child support.

The Sun-Times informs us that “deadbeat parents owe $3 billion in Illinois and $100 billion nationwide.” Yet most of this consists of artificially-inflated arrearages created because the system is mulishly impervious to the economic realities working people face, such as layoffs, wage cuts, unemployment, and work-related injuries. According to the Urban Institute, less than one in 20 non-custodial parents who suffers a substantial drop in income is able to get courts to reduce the support obligation. In such cases, the amounts owed mount quickly, as do interest (9% in Illinois) and penalties.

It is true, as the article demonstrates that the drop in living standards which custodial mothers sometimes experience after divorce can be drastic. However, research shows that divorced dads’ living standard drops as much or more. What both sides in the divorce wars often fail to recognize is that the income that once supported one household cannot support two at the same level, regardless of how much fathers pay.

The Sun-Times tells us that “divorce lawyers joke that high-earning husbands come down with ‘AIDS’ after a divorce–‘Acquired Income Deficiency Syndrome.’” Yet if one tries thinking of divorced fathers as people instead of as villains, it’s not hard to see why some dads earn less money after a divorce.

Divorce is a psychologically shattering event for fathers, usually more so than for mothers. Fathers–not mothers–are often cut off from their children. Many suffer from depression. A divorced father is ten times more likely to commit suicide than a divorced mother, and three times more likely to commit suicide than a married father.

The vast majority of divorces are initiated by women, not by men. Research shows that most of these do not involve a serious transgression by the men, such as violence or adultery, but instead because the women feel unappreciated or emotionally unfulfilled. From a man’s perspective, this often means that his wife: ended the marriage against his will; took his children out of his everyday life; and harmed his kids by breaking up the stable, two-parent home they once enjoyed. Then she demanded that he dramatically lower his standard of living in order to finance her decision. It’s not hard to see why men who once worked hard to support their families may be too disheartened to make the same sacrifices under these new conditions.

One also wonders about the Sun-Times’ priorities. Mark Saban is one of the dads singled out for criticism, yet the article informs us that Saban visits his kids regularly, has paid some child support, and puts forth a plausible case that after his business failed he lost the ability to pay the support that was demanded of him. Only one who views a father as an ATM machine and nothing more could agree with the Sun-Times’ listing of Saban as the “Second Worst dad in Illinois”?

Mothers often violate fathers’ already meager visitation rights, and sometimes alienate their children from them. Some mothers move far away in order to frustrate fathers’ contact with their children, while others make spurious accusations of abuse. Fathers are sometimes financially ruined by divorce–legal bills are huge, and they are often compelled by courts to pay their ex-wives’ legal costs, too.

Given the myriad injustices and problems fathers face when dealing with the family law system, it isn’t surprising that there are divorced fathers who don’t pay their child support. What’s surprising is that so many do.