family groups - fathers - In defence of deadbeat dads
A July 25 Justice Department study reveals that 6.9 million
people one in 34 adults were on probation, parole or incarcerated
in 2003. This record-breaking figure has prompted calls for
the removal of nonviolent offenders from the system.
If that happens, the first offenders to be removed should
be "deadbeat dads" imprisoned for defaulting on
child support they cannot afford to pay.
An obstacle confronts this proposal. An amazing lack of data
surrounds some basic questions: How many "deadbeat dads"
are in the correctional system? Do they refuse to pay or are
they unable to do so?"
The dearth of data is amazing because the "deadbeat dad"
has been a high-profile issue in politics and the media for
many years. Non-payment of child support is a significant
problem in the United States. According to the Federal Office
of Child Support, in 2003, $96 billion in accumulated unpaid
support was due to children in the United States; 68 percent
of child support cases were in arrears. An overwhelming majority
of children, particularly minorities, living in single-parent
homes where child support is not paid live in poverty. Yet,
many questions about these fathers and why they fail to pay
The "deadbeat dad" became a priority issue on a
federal level in 1975, when President Gerald Ford created
the national Office of Child Support Enforcement, the function
of which had previously been the purview of states.
In short, for almost 30 years, an army of civil servants and
government officials have spent billions of dollars to track
down "deadbeat dads." Yet even such basic and easily
collected data as how many have been jailed is difficult to
The DOJ states that 2,078,570 people were incarcerated "in
Federal or State prisons or in local jails" as of June
30, 2003. The crimes for which people were incarcerated are
sorted into four categories: Violent, Property, Drug, Public-order.
There is no category for "deadbeat dads." Indeed,
the local family courts that sentence fathers for non-payment
generally do so on "contempt of court" charges;
that is, the fathers are in contempt of a court-ordered payment.
This makes their cases difficult to sort out from other contempt
To my knowledge, there is no national data on the number of
"deadbeat dads" incarcerated on "contempt"
for non-payment. (The group, Hunger Strike for Justice, estimates
the number at 250,000, but their figure may well be inflated.)
Instead of hard data, anecdotal reports abound ? often in
the form of local news items about sentencing within a community.
The numbers are important. Prison populations are growing
rapidly even as crime rates continue to sharply decline. According
to the DOJ, the number of people incarcerated rose by 130,700
or by "2.9% from midyear 2002." It is important
to identify categories of nonviolent prisoners whose release
pose no threat to society.
Fathers who have been imprisoned because of an inability to
pay are perfect candidates for release. Indeed, their continued
incarceration comes close to establishing a de facto debtors'
prison ? an institution supposedly abolished more than 200
years ago by President Adams.
But are the incarcerated fathers unable to pay? An easy "yes"
or "no" answer does not exist. Nor do reliable statistics.
Again, anecdotal information fills the vacuum.
Some imprisoned fathers may be able to pay but refuse to do
so because of grievances. For example, they may be withholding
support until their court-ordered visitation rights are respected.
The story told by an imprisoned "deadbeat dad" who
identifies himself as "HeartBroken Father" is probably
more common. After two heart attacks, he became homeless.
Nevertheless, he writes, "I was still labeled a 'deadbeat
dad' by New York State, which suspended my driver's license,
and my professional license to practice as a Respiratory Technologist
in New York." (Revocation of professional licenses is
standard procedure against "deadbeat dads.")
By the time HeartBroken Father had landed a minimum-wage job,
he owed $30,000 in back child support. Despite a perfect record
of paying when employed, he was sentenced to five months of
consecutive weekends in jail, at which point he lost his job.
After describing the dangerous, humiliating and terrifying
experience of being imprisoned even as a "weekender,"
HeartBroken Father comments, "some judges use imprisonment
... as a 'tool,' to pry loose hidden funds from deadbeat dads,
their friends or relatives. I think this tactic is probably
very effective, because no one that could pay and get out
would subject themselves willingly to prison."
In short, any "deadbeat dad" who endures prison
is probably unable to pay his way out. This scenario becomes
more likely when you consider that employed "deadbeat
dads" have child support withheld from their wages; employers
are required to do so by law. Therefore, those imprisoned
are probably unemployed or have earnings that cannot cover
Their employment prospects sink with each imprisonment, even
as their child support debt rises.
It is difficult to understand what is accomplished by imprisoning
such nonviolent fathers. It is easier to understand what releasing
them accomplishes. Quite apart from humanitarian concerns,
the correctional system ? especially the prison system ? cannot
sustain its current growth rate. The DOJ estimates that in
2001, "2.7% of adults in the U.S. had served time in
prison, up from 1.8% in 1991 and 1.3% in 1974." Now the
estimate is 3.2 percent. Even if society could accommodate
the soaring rate of imprisonment, the prisons themselves cannot.
In some areas of the United States, incarcerated deadbeat
dads are already being released. For example, prison authorities
in Macomb County, Mich., recently released "60 drug offenders,
deadbeat dads and other low-level offenders" due to overcrowding.
It is time for the release of impoverished deadbeat dads to
become official policy in every corner of North America.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research
fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She
is the author and editor of many books and articles, including
the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism
in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute,
2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.