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The Deadbeat Dad's Dilemma
June 10, 2003
by Carey Roberts

Welfare queens, you can heave a sigh of relief. America now has a new public enemy number one: deadbeat dads.

Everyone knows about "those men" -- those balding corporate executives who buy a red convertible and run off with the bombshell secretary, leaving their ex-wife and children high and dry.

Unfortunately, the truth is quite the opposite. The typical "deadbeat dad" is a blue collar guy, sometimes without a job, whose wife initiated the divorce because she didn't feel "fulfilled" in the relationship.

In its frenzy to make sure divorced fathers pay their fair share, the US Congress has granted the Office of Child Support Enforcement a broad range of police powers to force men to pay up. These strong-arm tactics include garnishing a man's paycheck, revoking his driver's license, and sending him to jail.

According to a chilling exposé in the June issue of Men's Health Magazine, on any given day about 15,000 American men are in the slammer for falling behind on child support payments. How they are supposed to earn money while they are in jail, no one seems to know.

Take Bobby Sherrill, for example. He was working on contract to the Kuwaiti military in 1990. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August, they took Sherrill hostage. Four months later, he was released. When he came home to Fayetteville, NC, he expected a hero's welcome. Instead, the child support goons came and arrested him for failure to pay child support during his captivity.

Or consider Derek Harvey, a landscaper in Baltimore. Three months after he broke up with his girlfriend, his 3 children showed up on his doorstep in the middle of the night. Now Harvey takes care of his kids. But the child support bills keep coming. And he keeps paying, knowing the likely result of being tagged with the "deadbeat" epithet.

Some fathers crack under the pressure. According to a 2000 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, divorced men were more than twice as likely to commit suicide as married men, and almost 10 times more likely to kill themselves as divorced women.

Much of the problem can be traced to the arithmetic used to caclulate the payments. Back in the 1980s, Robert Williams was hired by the federal government to come up with a formula to figure how much fathers in various income brackets would have to pay. Then Williams created his own company, Policy Studies, Inc., to track down the deadbeats and receive a cut of the take.

But there's a basic conflict of interest at work here -- the higher the guidelines that Williams sets, the bigger the profits that flow to his company. That's like telling the IRS that they can increase their agency's budget by jimmying the tax rate charts.

So Jim Taylor of Richmond, Virginia, who earns a respectable $5,000 a month, is saddled with payments of $2,000. Even though his 3 sons spend half their time with him, Taylor's child support burden remains the same. As a result, he does not have the money to buy clothes for his kids or take them on a vacation.

So Taylor faced the essential dilemma of divorced dads: Should he put in more hours at work -- and devote less time with his kids -- in order to make ends meet? Or should he spend more time, and thus more expenses, with his kids, thus risking the poorhouse and even the jailhouse?

Taylor opted for the second choice. He eventually had to file for bankruptcy and moved in with his grandmother.

When the Office of Child Support Enforcement was first established in 1975, its advocates justified this intrusive experiment with the promise that dads would now stay involved with their children.

But in reality, it is forcing fathers to choose between the workhouse vs. the jailhouse. That is a choice that no parent should have to make.

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