#2 How the child support system fails families

What do we owe to our children? I mean that literally. What do we owe our biological children, if we have them. I do not have children and have held longstanding grudges against my parents (who arguably did meet the standard for “good enough parenting“, but this is another story…) so I used to think of this question primarily in the context of needs and values such as unconditional love, caretaking, and finding opportunities for enrichment (for a summary on the history of research into the value of social environments to develop kids’ brains, check out this article). Perhaps because my parents were broke, or because they could neither afford to send me to college nor to allow me to apply to college as an emancipated minor, I never thought much about what basic minimum requirement ought to be in place for parents.

Then, I fell in love with a man who has children from whom he is estranged. Aside from feeling sadness at the seeming frailty of human connections and anger that he could not see the long-term consequences of his decision to leave his children nearly two decades ago (e.g. that he has almost no relationship with them now; that they experienced violence at home in his absence; that they hate him), the researcher in me wondered, what and how much a parent owes a child when the parent, whether due to mental illness, job loss, incarceration, intimate relationship problems or another cause, is unable to parent that child?

According to a 2015 NPR story, President Ford implemented the child support system in 1975. No-fault divorces had recently been legalized in many states and the child support system that ensued was designed to mirror the nuclear family, with the child(ren) living with their mothers post-divorce, and fathers paying child support. However, very quickly, there was a simultaneous rise in non-marital births, with some women wanting to stay home with young children (understandably) as well as a large number of women entering the workforce (for many families, two-incomes were needed to meet economic pressures), and a large divide between men with a college degree and those without one. The end result is that many children are born to single mothers who do not have the resources to care for the children alone and thus fathers are required to contribute, but often beyond their financial means (for example, a father is unemployed but owe $250/month in child support payments). Because states are under pressure to limit welfare recipients, they push for payments from men who do not have the ability to pay child support.

According to a 2014 report by the Child & Family Research Center at UTAustin, couples who are the least likely to establish paternity are those who had brief and “rocky” relationships prior to conception, often marked by violence, and/or relationships in which the male had multiple sex partners around the same time. This raises questions about the extent to which these individuals have reliable access to birth control, guidance about healthy relationships, and financial literacy.

It seems to me that these predictors of poor paternal involvement (including financial support), as well as risk factors for child abuse could be the points upon which prevention interventions could be built to support the complex forms families take in the world today. This could include many possible interventions including home visits from nurses for new parents, affordable child care for moderate and low-income families, financial literacy training, and access to health care that includes comprehensive sexual health education that empowers young adults.

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