With support from President Obama, Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Congressman Danny Davis (D-IL) introduced the Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act of 2009 for Father's Day, a bill cosponsored by then-Senator Barack Obama in the last Congress. Obviously Bayh and Davis have to contend with DC political realities, which work against fathers and make rational legislation to help them politically difficult. Still, this Responsible Fatherhood bill will help bureaucrats and others far more than it helps dads, and in some ways it will hurt fathers.
According to Bayh's press release, the legislation will:
1) "Ensure that child support payments to families do not count as income and result in loss of food stamps."
That's nice for low-income mothers, who can probably use the help, but it doesn't directly help the noncustodial fathers who are paying this child support.
2) "Restore cuts in federal child support enforcement funding to help state and local governments collect $13 billion in additional payments for single parents"
This hurts low-income men who, unable to make the unrealistic payments demanded of them, are already harassed and jailed by the multi-billion dollar child support apparatus. Obama/Bayh/Davis want to increase funding for child support enforcement, even though the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement’s own data show that two-thirds of “deadbeat dads” earn poverty-level wages, and only 4 percent earn even $40,000 a year. This situation has been made far worse by the recession.
This measure won't help mothers either, because there's little money to collect from most so-called "deadbeats" anyway. What this measure does is help keep and expand employment for child support enforcement bureaucrats. To learn more, see a newspaper column I wrote about child support enforcement funding here.
President Barack Obama's new economic stimulus package already provided $1 billion for fattening up child support enforcement's bloated budget. The standard argument in favor of this is superficially convincing -- "More than $4 was collected in support for every dollar invested in the program."
It is true that federal figures show that over $20 billion in child support is collected nationwide yearly, and that only $5 billion is spent on enforcement. However, the vast majority of the funds collected are not done through enforcement tactics -- they're simply the payments already being made by law-abiding noncustodial parents. These payments will continue to be made regardless of the cuts.
The $4 for $1 myth was created by incorrectly counterposing total collections with expenditures on enforcement. To give child support enforcement credit for all child support collections is like the collections department at Target being credited every time a customer buys something and pays at the register. The mainstream media has largely declined to discuss this Enron-style accounting.
3) "Require states to send 100 percent of all child support payments to the single parent within five years, rather than letting states take a portion of money for administrative costs."
Currently many noncustodial fathers—particularly African-American and Latino fathers, upon whom Obama often focuses—are required to pay their child support to the state to reimburse the cost of public assistance, instead of to the children’s mothers. This new measure helps low-income mothers, and that's a good thing. It's also a modest positive for fathers -- paying "child support" that doesn't go to your children is demoralizing for low-income men struggling to make a difference in their kids’ lives.
4) "Fund programs designed to protect the families who have been affected by domestic violence."
Protecting battered women is important, but domestic violence laws and programs have also made it easy for unscrupulous mothers to drive fathers out of their children's lives by making false accusations of domestic violence. As many prominent family law professionals have noted, this is a major problem, particularly as it applies to domestic violence restraining orders, which are issued almost automatically. To learn more, see my column Restraining Orders Can Be Straitjackets On Justice (Newark Star-Ledger, 7/28/08).
The bill does have a few provisions which actually pertain to fathers:
1) "Fund job training programs and community partnerships to help parents find employment."
Although often these programs' real purpose is to bring fathers into the system so they can pay child support, it can still be a good thing for fathers, if it's run properly.
2) "Fund financial literacy programs and budgeting education, employment services, and mediation and conflict resolution for low-income parents."
This helps mothers at least as much as fathers but is a good idea, if the programs are effective.
3) "Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit to increase the incentive for full-time work and fulfillment of child support obligations."
Fathers pay child support out of after-tax dollars, whereas mothers receive child support tax free. If this program helps ameliorate that, it's a good thing.
While some fathers voluntarily remove themselves from their children’s lives, many seek a greater role. Most child custody arrangements provide fathers only a few days a month to spend with their children, and fighting for shared parenting is expensive and difficult. Custodial mothers frequently fail to honor visitation orders, and there is no system in place to help enforce visitation orders. The Obama/Bayh/Davis "Fatherhood" bill does little to address the real problems separating fathers from the children who love them and need them.
Glenn Sacks is the Executive Director of Fathers & Families, the nation's largest family court reform organization. Fathers and Families, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, improves the lives of children and strengthens society by protecting the child's right to the love and care of both parents after separation or divorce.