Faced with mushrooming numbers of children growing up in single-parent homes, federal lawmakers and enforcement officials are cranking up the nation's most popular family policy: child support.
U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has accelerated prosecution of those who try to avoid paying support by crossing state lines. The Department of Health and Human Services has raised its collection rate by seizing delinquents' tax refunds. Members of Congress have introduced bills this year that would set up state registries to keep track of payments and a national directory of "new hires" to speed up automatic wage deductions when a deadbeat gets a new job.
According to fatherhood activist David Blankenhorn, there's only one problem: Child support doesn't work.
"The typical child living apart from her father is not any better off today financially than she was (a few years ago) when we first began this effort to crack down on child support," said Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values in New York.
In his book, "Fatherless America" (Basic Books, 1995), Blankenhorn reports that since 1979, shortly after the federal government began to enforce child-support collection, the problem has only grown larger and more intractable. While more dollars have been collected, more dollars per child have not. From 1978 to 1989, the mean payment received by all women with four or more children actually went down from $5,056 to $3,226, he said.
Not only is the pool of absent fathers growing faster than the government's ability to collect support, but the type of absent father has changed, Blankenhorn said. Originally the system was set up to deal with divorced fathers. But since then, unwed fathers--who, he said, are less likely to pay--have grown from 19% of the caseload to 30%.
"If these guys don't think of themselves as fathers, if they're not motivated to act like fathers, or live like fathers, they're not going to send in child support. . . .
"We are never going to be able to have enough computers and IRS agents and commissions and pilot projects and enforcement officers to collect the money from these men."
According to Blankenhorn, the only way to get more child support is to get more men into committed, married relationships. He believes the path to solutions begins with asking different questions. "Not, can we produce more child support, but can we produce more fathers?"
Child advocates agree with Blankenhorn that ideally, families should remain intact. "The problem is, stuff happens," said Nora O'Brien, Sacramento regional director of the 30,000-member Assn. for Children for Enforcement of Support (ACES). "We have to look at reality."
Rather than focusing on unproven social strategies, such as making divorce more difficult to obtain, these advocates argue that society must try harder to help children acquire the necessary money for basics--food, clothing and shelter.
They also agree that progress has been glacial. Said Nancy Ebb, senior staff attorney for the Children's Defense Fund: "There has been a huge increase in demand for child-support help, both from families on welfare and non-welfare families. State resources haven't kept up and caseworkers are swamped. Many of them have caseloads over 1,000."
In Los Angeles County, child-support cases have grown to 600,000 from 200,000 during the past five years.
In 1993, state agencies collected money in only 18% of cases, Ebb said.
Geraldine Jensen, national president of ACES, said that 23 million children are now owed $34 billion, and that 90% of children on welfare are entitled to child support. "The system's broken, no doubt about it," she said.
But some, such as Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist on family issues at Johns Hopkins University, are not discouraged by the lack of progress. "I don't think we tried as hard as we should have until very recently," Cherlin said. "We're just beginning to be tough on fathers and there's lots more we can do and we will be doing it in the future."
Some cite progress in identifying unwed fathers through hospital-based voluntary programs such as California's Parent Opportunity Program, which began Jan. 1. The programs aim to save time and money by asking new fathers to sign declarations of paternity, the first step in establishing a child-support case. Supporters note that while young fathers have limited ability to pay court-ordered support, their earning ability grows in time.
Still, Blankenhorn and others complain that in a post-feminist era, divorced and unwed fathers are the only ones still held to the outmoded breadwinner standard of fatherhood. The main reason children are not better off, in the view of Blankenhorn and other father activists, is that a father's primary value to his children is his presence, not his support check.
David Gray Ross, deputy director of the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement, contends that his office does more than simply collect money. "We are in the business of promoting families and responsible parenthood," he said. "It is our experience that when non-custodial parents provide child support, they are more inclined to be active in their child's life."
But many acknowledge that despite its poor record so far, the government knows more about how to make absent fathers pay than about how to involve them in their children's lives.
Judith Seltzer, a visiting scholar at Rand in Santa Monica, said her research confirms that the more child support parents pay, the more time they will spend with their children and vice versa. The pattern holds even if they are remarried and regardless of the number of children involved. But, she said, it is unclear whether stricter enforcement of child support will result in absent fathers spending more time with their children, although the weight of evidence suggests it does. "We don't have the answer. A lot of us are trying to figure it out."
The connection is important to fathers' rights advocates who are seeking public policies that would reduce child-support payments in return for time spent with children.
But after divorce, sociologist Cherlin said, "It's almost too late to start enticing fathers into their children's lives.
"The real key to involving absent fathers in their children's lives is to also involve fathers in two-parent families in their children's lives," he said. "How you do that, I'm not quite sure."