Democrats or Republicans, all politicians love to chase deadbeat
dads. With the White House, Congress and state legislatures all
joining the hunt, the capture and extraction of money from AWOL
fathers has become one of the most successful � and bipartisan �
social policy crusades of recent years.
Collection of child support from the 11 million fathers who do
not live with their children has nearly doubled in the past decade,
to more than $18 billion a year.
"There is no way to escape these guys unless you get an alias and
are prepared to hide for the rest of your life," said Damien Abeyta,
24, who lives in Denver and is the father of two infant sons from
two mothers with whom he no longer has contact. The state of
Colorado caught up with him last year, even though he was working an
off- the-books construction job. It warned him that unless he acted
at once to pay his arrears, his driver's license would be
Yet with the budget that President Bush sends this week to
Congress, there is now bipartisan recognition at the highest level
of government that the hunt for deadbeats is getting out of hand
when it comes to the 2.5 million American fathers who are poor.
This is an unusual case of conservatives and liberals realizing
that no-nonsense law enforcement is chasing some fathers away from
their children. It comes at a time when both parties have agreed to
support the crucial role that fathers play in child development.
The White House is acknowledging what recent social research has
shown: for a poor absentee father and his even poorer children, the
current system offers only family- unfriendly choices.
If a poor father pays child support to the state, it typically
keeps the money to pay itself back for welfare benefits paid to his
children. As a result, his children and their mother see no tangible
evidence that the father is helping their lives. If he gives money
to his family under the table, which greatly improves his
relationship with the mother and often allows him more time with his
children, it does nothing to reduce his legal child-support
obligations. Instead, a father often finds himself living as an
invisible man, working in the underground economy as his
child-support arrears, with interest running at 12 percent in some
states, mount ever higher.
The president's budget proposal will offer absentee fathers who
are "dead broke" much better odds of seeing their children, while
coming in from the cold of unpayable debt. The Bush proposal will
include a provision to send all of a father's payments directly to
his family. It will also propose spending $286 million over five
years to reimburse states that pass child support on to families.
"What we are trying to do is set up family ties so that the
father knows that the check is going to the family and the children,
versus going to some government coffer somewhere," said a senior
administration official, who spoke on the condition of
Even those child-welfare experts who have almost nothing good to
say about the Bush administration's policies toward the poor regard
this proposal as innovative and much needed. "It is an important
signal about the value of child support to low- income families and
a message to poor fathers that if they pay support it will really
make a difference to their children," said Paula Roberts, a lawyer
who specializes in child support issues at the Center for Law and
Social Policy in Washington.
There is only one state, Wisconsin, that passes along all
child-support money to families without any reduction in welfare
payments. Five years of research there suggests that the policy has
been a solid success. It motivates fathers to pay more child
support, encourages unmarried partners to establish paternity more
quickly and shortens the amount of time that mothers stay on
It is no coincidence that Wisconsin's child support experiment,
having been validated by research, is being proposed this year as
federal policy under Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of health and
human services, who is a former governor of Wisconsin.
In the federal welfare reform law of 1996, which imposed a
five-year limit on cash payments to mothers, all states were given
the option of passing child support payments on to families. But
none has done so with Wisconsin's zeal.
IN part, that's because of bureaucratic hunger for a large slice
of the child- support pie. With 55,300 employees, the state and
federal child-support system spends $1 of every $5 it collects on
administrative overhead, according to federal figures. "The logic of
the system overtook the policy, which was to help children," said
Maria Cancian, an economist at the University of Wisconsin, who
worked on an evaluation of the state's child-support reforms.
The federal and state enforcement system works well when
collecting child support from middle-class dads with jobs, she said,
"but the fathers of poor children are often themselves poor and the
logic of forcing them to pay the cost of welfare is not
A piece of the welfare puzzle that is compelling to both
Republicans and Democrats has emerged from a flood of research on
poor families. It shows that a father's presence in the home is much
more important to the emotional development of children than was
previously understood. Among other things, it increases the odds
that a child will complete high school, not take drugs and not
become pregnant before the age of 18.
Complementing that research are findings in Wisconsin and
elsewhere that a significant percentage of nonresident poor fathers
(about one-third) have at least weekly contact with their children
and that many would like to see them much more often. "When you are
separated from your child, there is a part of you that dies every
day," said Eric Legette, a nonresident father in Brooklyn who runs a
program called Fathers With Voices, which offers men instruction in
how to use the legal system to see their children.
The desire of men to be with their children is "the only carrot"
that works with many poor fathers, said Robert Brady, head of the
Young Fathers program in Denver. "These men may not care about the
law, but they do want to see those kids," he said.
The Bush proposal to allow a poor dad's money to go directly to
his offspring seems certain to lure more fathers in from the
underground economy, child-support experts agree, while making the
children and the mothers considerably happier to see