Jewish World Review Sept. 24, 2003 / 27 Elul 5763

Wendy McElroy

Wendy McElroy
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Consumer Reports

Do Poor Fathers Deserve Debtors' Prison? | This Thursday, Sept. 25, 16 fathers (at last count) will begin a hunger strike to draw media attention to issues like the imprisonment of "deadbeat dads."

The group, Hunger Strike for Justice, estimates the total number of fathers incarcerated in the U.S. for failure to pay child support is 250,000.

This estimate seems high given that the entire prison population is somewhat over two million, but it is difficult to argue because no official statistics exist.

A more useful question to ask, however, is: What does throwing a "deadbeat dad" in jail accomplish?

That's the question recently asked by a Texas judge who recommended releasing from jail 112 men who were behind county bars because they hadn't paid child support. (No women were imprisoned on the charge.) The judge doubted the wisdom of throwing non-violent parents into a badly overcrowded jail system because they were in debt. After all, there is no statistical proof that imprisonment motivates a father who can pay court-ordered child support to do so; imprisonment prevents those unable to pay from earning money.

The deadbeat dad stereotype is of a father who abandons his children and willfully refuses to pay for their support. He has become a cultural villain on par with other "D-Ds": the drunk driver and the drug dealer. That stereotype is at the center of an emerging debate over whether delinquent fathers should be incarcerated.

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A point on which both sides agree: Children are being deprived of financial support, and that should be corrected. One side -- consisting largely of those who enforce or benefit from current policies -- wishes to track down and imprison fathers who owe money. The other side -- consisting largely of father's rights advocates -- calls for an overhaul of current child support policies, claiming they are unjust and unworkable for both fathers and children.

Advocates of imprisonment wield the force of law. In cities and counties across North America, delinquent fathers are going to jail.

For example, deadbeat "parents" (read men) in Central Texas were warned last week: pay up or else. The "or else" is a threat of six months in jail. At the same moment, the federal government announced a nationwide crackdown, coordinated by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

The possible extent of such crackdowns can be gauged from a statement made by Larry McKeown, director of South Carolina's Child Support Enforcement. He claims that South Carolina alone is pursuing collection from an astounding 225,000 delinquent parents.

Again, the argument is that deadbeat dads are able to pay and simply require the threat of jail to do so. Although it is not supported by statistical research, the argument may be true in some cases. But the opposite is probably more common.

"Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths" (1998) remains the most extensive federally funded study on divorced fathers. Conducted by Dr. Sanford Braver of Arizona State University, it found that the stereotypical deadbeat dad "does not exist in significant numbers." Many if not most of delinquent fathers are unable to pay their child support, especially when it is coupled with steep interest charges for falling behind.

The questions surrounding imprisonment are complicated by an extraordinary lack of hard data on even the most basic facts; for example, the number of delinquent fathers in jail is unknown. (The Bureau of Justice Statistics broadly categorizes crimes as "Violent, Property, Drug, or Public Order.")

In the absence of such data, father's rights advocates tend to focus on personal stories and the deeper problems underlying the concept of "deadbeat dad."

The personal stories can be heartbreaking, such as those told in the suicide notes of fathers left without a means of supporting themselves. Other stories are infuriating, like that of Bobby Sherrill. Working in Kuwait during the Iraqi invasion of 1990, Sherrill was taken hostage. Upon his release and return to America, he was arrested for failure to make support payments while captive.

The underlying problems to which father's rights advocates point include:

Child support cannot be reasonably altered. For example, the Bradley Amendment forbids a judge from retroactively reducing or forgiving child support due to changed circumstances, such as unemployment or illness. (This amendment led to Sherrill's arrest.)

The current child support system is a "gravy train" for state and local agencies, judges and attorneys, social workers, private collection agencies, child-support professionals ... none of whom have a vested interest in reducing bureaucracy or listening to fathers' complaints.

Payments should be linked to a non-abusive father's right to see his children, a right that is often de facto denied. According to a 1999 U.S. Census Bureau report, when joint custody or visitation rights were present, the non-custodial parent paid at least some support in 78.7 percent of cases. Without joint custody or visitation, the percentage fell to 46.1.

Current policies violate the right to due process. They also violate many state constitutions. For example, judges in both Georgia and Tennessee have ruled their own state's child support guidelines to be unconstitutional.

A mountain of objections could be added.

With a social problem weak on statistics, strong on devastating personal tragedy and rife with systemic problems such as those listed above, this week's Hunger Strike for Justice is right about one thing: the media should be paying attention.

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JWR contributor Wendy McElroy is the editor of She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women (McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada. Comment by clicking here.


08/29/03: Going to extremes
08/23/03: The Marriage Strike
07/30/03: University Students Deserve Human Rights
07/09/03: The PCspeak of Diversity
07/02/03: Rebuttable presumption of joint custody
06/18/03: A Conscientious Objector to the Gender War
06/04/03: Gender issues impacted by masculinists
05/28/03: The value of error
05/21/03: U.S. to Fund Gender Feminism in Africa?
05/14/03: Cut men: Do they not bleed?
05/07/03: Women with guns fight back
04/30/03: No oil for food
04/28/03: The Great Lie
04/16/03: War may redefine gun control
04/09/03: Why we must discuss a post-war U.S.
04/02/03: Leftist feminists using war as podium
03/26/03: Laying down 'the white woman's burden'
03/19/03: Iraq War may kill feminism as we know it
03/13/03: A woman to replace Saddam
02/19/03: Elder abuse demands family solutions
02/13/03: Iraqi women brutalized by Saddam
01/29/03: There ought not to be a law
01/22/03: Gambling with race and gender cards
01/02/03: The future of fatherhood
12/26/02: U.N. complicit in forced sterilizations
12/20/02: Compassion, kindness killed by fear, paranoia
12/11/02: Affirmative action insults immigrant contributions
12/04/02: Stand up for yourself
11/27/02: Feminist fighting: Aren't we all women?
11/20/02: Rights & responsibilities
11/14/02: Feminist "urban legends"
11/06/02: Equal access does not guarantee equal outcome
10/24/02: Battered Women's Syndrome: Science or sham?
10/17/02: I demand a civil society that respects the individual and acknowledges the existence of honest disagreement between human beings of good will
10/09/02: Abortion debate is about to be ratcheted up yet again
10/02/02: 'Restorative justice' offers battered women more options
09/25/02: Why is prez promising to embrace UN radical social engineering programs?
09/18/02: Dirty dealings kill men's panel
09/11/02: Taking back your power
09/05/02: Calm down, Hootie!
08/21/02: Will Congress empower a group of radical feminists to oversee money slated for Afghan women?
08/14/02: Empower the U.N. with power to sculpt American laws and institutions into the image of gender feminism!?
08/01/02: Practicing 'intellectual virtue'
07/24/02: All male, bad. All female, good: Your tax dollars at work
07/11/02: Put Up or Shut Up
07/03/02: NOW they've done it, again!
06/19/02: A dark cloud shades U.N. Women's Treaty
06/10/02: This Father's Day, send justice
05/31/02: When good women do nothing
05/28/02: Feminists claiming motherhood as liberal cause
05/20/02: Wounds in health care system are self-inflicted: Or, why "my son the lawyer" makes more sense
05/10/02: Are parents boycotting public schools?
05/03/02: Women can't be gun-shy about defense
04/25/02: The Bill of Intellectual Rights
04/19/02: World Bank or World Government?: The World Bank is blackmailing impoverished nations
04/12/02: Victims From Birth: Engineering Defects in Helpless Children Crosses the Line
04/05/02: The professor made me cry, now I will make him pay!
03/31/02: Doctors and teens --- parents be on guard
03/22/02: I was born, now I'm suing you!
03/15/02: The 21st Century is knocking at the barricaded door of feminism
03/08/02: Fun and games at the Ms mag Bulletin Board
03/01/02: Andrea Yates, NOW, and Feminist Jurisprudence
02/22/02: Lady, Your Slip is Showing
02/14/02: 'Abusing' Valentine's Day
02/11/02: Is NOW Pro-Choice or Pro-Abortion?
02/01/02: Are 'fathers' rights' a factor in male suicide?
01/25/02: Is the U.N. Running Brothels in Bosnia?
01/18/02: 'Freedom' at another's (moral) expense
01/11/02: Feminists hit Ground Zero with WTC funds grab
01/04/02: Males winning "diversity discrimination" cases is good?
12/21/01: Good will toward men
12/14/01: "Boss Tweed" feminism
12/07/01: Call me 'anti-woman'

© 2001, Wendy McElroy